Stop and Smell the Roses - Using Scents to Engage Seniors

21 Mar Stop and Smell the Roses - Using Scents to Engage Seniors

The sense of smell is intricately linked with memory and emotions. Picture walking by a lilac in bloom triggering a memory of a special garden or the scent of fresh baked cookies in the oven leading to a memory of you as a child in the kitchen with your mom. Research has shown that loss of smell can be an early sign of a serious condition such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. Since the sense of smell is so closely tied to memories, a diminishing sense of smell due to Alzheimers can add to the loss of sentimental memories.

How Do We Smell?

Our sense of smell begins at the back of the nose, where millions of sensory neurons have receptors that bind odor molecules. Think of the receptors as locks and the odor molecules are keys.  The complexity of these receptors and their interactions with odor molecules enable us to detect a wide variety of smells. What we may think of as a single smell is actually a combination of many different odor molecules “unlocking” many different receptors, creating a code to our brains to help us to identify the scent of a cinnamon bun versus freshly-cut grass. 

Scents go straight to the brain's smell center called the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus the brain’s main memory center.  This explains why a smell immediately triggers a detailed memory. In addition to being closely linked to memory, smells also evoke emotions.  We can distinguish up to 10,000 odors! In this TED-ed video, learn how all of these smells reach your brain. How Do We Smell? 

Meet The Scent Guru

After leaving her 30 year career as a fragrance developer at companies such as Clairol and after her mother (with her in photo above) passed away from dementia-related causes in 2016, Ruth Sutcliffe founded The Scent Guru Group. Knowing how scent can influence memories and emotions, she launched her “”Essential Awakenings” scent kit, an innovative communication tool that includes distinctive smell prompts that help guide conversations and story telling. Some of her favorite Essential Smells© that stimulate conversation:  Grass (picnics, playing football), Chocolate (Easter Egg Hunts) Popcorn (going to movies and watching television as a family).


“My hopes are that Assisted Living Communities for Memory Care, Caregivers and families will use these smell prompts to enrich the lives of seniors living with various forms of dementia in an activity to help stimulate their brain, and encourage socialization, conversation, storytelling and recall of memory through the sense of smell,” said Ruth.

Ruth has such warm and happy stories from her Essential Scents activities at local Westchester, New York and Fairfield County, Connecticut assisted living facilities. A gentleman in a memory care group finally joined her session after being a bit skeptical. Ruth gave them the scent of chocolate (as a “blind” scent) and asked everyone to describe the smell.  He eagerly chimed in and said, “…I want to date a woman who wears this.” 

At another session with a group in a Greenwich assisted living home, a woman smelled the fresh-cut grass scent and happily recounted her memory about growing up in  Switzerland and how they would cut the grass and lay it out to dry and feed the cows. 

Join STEPS Home Care for our Weekly STEPPING Out Social Activities including a Scent and Memory Session

Join us on a Thursday afternoon in April for one of Ruth’s Essential Awarkening sessions here in Greenwich and Westchester. Check out our STEPPING Out Senior Social Calendar for more details.

For more information on how to purchase The Essential Awakenings Scent Kit or how you can access a scent activity being led near your loved one, contact Ruth directly at