This past year should be called the "Year of Resilience" as we struggled to understand and battle COVID-19. The senior population, whether living at home or in Assisted Living Communities, were greatly impacted, and too many have passed away because of it. The elderly in ALCs were isolated in their rooms having very little interaction (if any) to their co-residents, and those living independently were home-bound and family visits were often limited to FaceTime, telephone calls, or waves and “hellos” from street side or opposite sides of windows.
The pandemic also dramatically effected Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory activities that came to a screeching halt. After my initial panic in March and April, I managed to repurpose the smell and memory kits by collaborating with a neuroscientist who developed a Smell Training Guide for my kits so that people who have lost their sense of smell could use the kits for "Smell Training". So far, I have received positive feedback from my customers, but hope that I can soon continue Essential Awakenings® activities for seniors who are in dire need for sensory stimulation and socialization.
How can the Essential Awakenings® activities and sensory stimulation help seniors? Here are some examples:
Essential Awakenings® Triggers Memories And Helps Connect Us:
I always begin my smelling sessions talking about the sense of smell and how we often take it for granted. Many of us wake up and take a look out the window to see what type of weather we’ll be facing that day. We hear the birds, traffic, or whatever sounds surround us in our own environment. Then, we put on our clothes, feel the various textures of cotton, wool, or denim, and go for our breakfast to savor the jam on our toast... feel the texture, crunchiness and taste the flavor of our dry cereal while sipping our coffee or tea. What we often don’t pay very much attention to, are the smells that surround us during our first hours of waking.
I like to share stories about my childhood when the smell of my mother’s coffee was the alarm clock that signaled it was time to get up and do farm chores before school. I describe the stench of animal manure in the barn, the smell of the dusty from hay from the chicken coop and the smell of warm goat's milk while milking them. I often lead my audience to the many scent memories of walking through the forest, or making blueberry jam with my mother in our kitchen. Scent is connected to emotion, and emotion can bring out memories from long ago and it is so important to hold on to these memories and to share them. After all, without storytelling, there would be a lack of history.
An example of how people with dementia can have memory recall is of a day at The Greens At Greenwich, when I showed the smell of peaches, and a woman in my audience told us that she grew up in Switzerland next to an apricot orchard. She then continued to describe the scent of the fields of grass (hay) being harvested for cattle feed. From there, others joined in about where they grew up, and what types of scents resonated with them. This is a perfect example of how scent can recall memories and the sharing of personal stories that not only provides entertainment, but offers a very deep personal connection we can share with each other.
My last session at The Greens At Greenwich was documented in a video on February 15th, 2020. In this session, I talked about how I loved the smells of freshly baked bread and rotisserie chicken wafting through the streets of Paris. A new member of the group introduced himself as Jean Claude—and told us about living in Paris when the Americans saved the city from the Nazis. Without prompting, he started singing The Marseillaise and was soon joined by another woman in our group who happened to also be a Francophile. In this video posted on YouTube, you can see that another woman with dementia in our group mouthed the words. I had no idea before that day that The Marseillaise would have been sung by 3 participants in the group, and they in turn discovered that they, themselves had the French language in common! Our conversation continued with me showing the smell of lilac...a wonderful aroma that is one of the first signs of the oncoming warmer weather of summer and the revival of green grass and beautiful flowers. It was such a sweet and heartwarming experience and I know this particular session will hold a long lasting memory for me as I hope it does for them. At the end of this session, the woman and man left the room holding hands. Friends forever, I hope!
Essential Awakenings® For Storytelling:
The featured photograph for this blog, is from 2 years ago of me giving an Essential Awakenings® tutorial to home care providers. When smelling mint, one of the attendees (Joe) on my right, shared how the smell of mint connected him to his honeymoon in Morocco 26 years earlier. (Mint tea is a common beverage and culturally known for helping digestion after a big meal). Joe proceeded to take us through the various destinations he and his wife Nicol went to while in Morocco. He drew the audience in to the conversation and transported all of us to this faraway destination through his descriptions of his trip. Any caregiver can do the same while using the scents as prompts to tell and share their own personal stories connected to each of the scent prompts, or to help engage the person they are caring for to help them tell their own.
How The Awareness of Our Sense of Smell Can Save Our Life:
I met Timothy Huff at the River House Senior Center in 2019, who told us the story of how his sense of smell saved his life in Vietnam. I asked him to share his story and to tell us what the smell was that saved his life. He replied “the smell of garlic and fish.” “Makes sense” I said, as fish and garlic have particularly strong odors, and were not part of the American soldiers’ diets (according to some accounts I’ve read, our soldiers were often given meals in cardboard boxes containing 1,200 calories from food such as ham, Beanie Weenies, chopped ham and eggs, crackers, pound cakes and applesauce). I immediately imagined Timothy with his fellow soldiers, quietly moving through the foliage of the hot, humid dangerous jungle, and all of a sudden, the aroma of garlic and fish wafts in the air, and the survival instinct...also called the fight-or-flight defense response kicked in.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, medical professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists and the WHO have stated that mental health issues would take a toll on people—especially those who are vulnerable to the virus—due to isolation, and that the virus will have “a significant impact on health, contributing to conditions such as depression, anxiety and dementia”. It is so important for us to help those people who are isolated to feel loved, cared for, and keep them connected. Sometimes it's just a matter of a phone call, which is why I volunteered to make calls this past summer for the Commission On Aging for the town of Greenwich. If you know someone who is alone, make a call just to say"hello" and check in on them to see if they need anything. If you are a caregiver or a caregiver agency, consider using Essential Awakenings® as a tool to stimulate your loved one's sense of smell, or to play a game of "what's that smell"?
In closing, I am saddened to have learned that 13 people at the senior center where I gave activity sessions, passed away during the pandemic. Timothy Huff was one of the 13. Timothy's wartime story is one that I will remember and tell my audience and attendees for the rest of my life. This blog is dedicated to Timothy Huff and the 12 other sweet, beautiful people I met at the River House Adult Day Center who have passed on. May you all Rest In Peace: Maria Carino, John Fazio, Ramon Garcia, Burton Hoffman, Carmen Hooper, Timothy Huff, Robert Kennedy, Una Minott, Irene McCarren, Mario Nardi, Emma Sturm, Edmund Schmidt, Ruth Wallace
For videos of how I (and you) can conduct Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory Sessions and how it helps engage people in socialization, communication, stimulation of the sense of smell, and memory recall, go to my YouTube Channel, The Scent Guru Group Ruth Sutcliffe to watch at your leisure:
Please read my blogs that I write once a month, or content on the various social media platforms I’m active on. I try to keep them fresh and share as much valuable content and information about dementia, wellbeing and how scent can contribute to wellbeing. Of course, I also share updates about Essential Awakenings® And MindScent®:
The Scent Guru Group
Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory
My FB group page (anyone can join): Scent and Wellbeing with Ruth Sutcliffe
Recommended links to articles about social isolation and effects on mental health:
Resources for this blog:
History.com, March, 13, 2020;
Charles Nielsen, Vietnam Vet, on Quora.com, March 21, 2020