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October 19, 2021 9 min read

What is the story behind Essential Awakenings® and how did it come to fruition? Essential Awakenings® encapsulates a little bit of neuroscience, chemistry, creativity, human behavior, socialization, psychology, humanity, gerontology, communication and emotional wellbeing--all with the focus on a disease called dementia. According to Alzheimer's Disease International there were more than 55 million people worldwide suffering from dementia in 2020, estimated to reach 78 million in 2030 and 139 million by 2050, with an annual global cost of above US$ 1.3 trillion.  

Filling A Need Gap:

Essential Awakenings® was conceived in late February 2016 after my mother’s death from dementia-related causes.  The concept for a multi-sensory tool kit was sparked shortly after her death, because I had become almost obsessed with how I could make a difference in the lives and families of people who were suffering with this terrible disease.  The thought process for creating this innovative sensory activity ruminated in my mind for weeks, because I had always realized--while visiting my mother in her residences-- that there was a lack activities in senior homes focusing on the sense of smell--an often taken-for-granted and under-appreciated sensory function.  Senior living communities often included various physical activities, bingo, music and art therapy, visits to museums and going to the grocery stores for shopping trips, but it was rare that I heard of an activity focused on the importance of stimulating the sense of smell.  Since my mother had dementia and my mother-in-law at the time had Alzheimer's, I noticed that both were very picky eaters...only wanting to eat sweet or salty foods.  When I started reading about the lost sense of smell experienced by people with the disease, my brain sparked thoughts like "what if I could help stimulate the sense of smell that would in turn stimulate the sense of taste?  And what if giving a "reawakening" to these sensory functions would help stimulate their desire to eat a wider variety of foods?"  The thought that an aroma therapy activity might help people with this disease brought me that Aha!  moment.

If You Have What It Takes:

Through my years of experience in the fragrance business, I was also well aware that the sense of smell is linked to the most ancient part of the brain holding emotion, and is instrumental in bringing back memories.  While developing fragrances for Coty, I worked with celebrities such as Celine Dion, Beyonce and Halle Berry and used a technique where I would have them smell various "accords" (a short formula that exemplifies a particular olfactive theme such as various flowers, grass, sweet, fresh, citrus, bold and woodsy themes etc.,) and with each accord, I asked for feedback in order to gain insight into their olfactive preferences.  In my experience with Celine Dion, she preferred accords such as the smell of grass linked to playing golf with her late husband Rene and jasmine for memories from vacationing on the Cote d'Azur--all positive memories.  Halle Berry fragrances usually included a touch of mimosa because she had always loved its scent drawn from various past experiences and as a freelance fragrance developer, I designed Eau de Rose for fashion designer Tadashi Shoji because this floral scent took him back to his rose garden at his home in Japan. 

For more than 3 decades in the fragrance industry, I have had the opportunity to have worked with various R&D researchers from fields of botany, biology, chemistry, psychology and neuroscience as well as  marketers, sales, retailers, operational and packaging professionals that gave me well-rounded experience and exposure needed to pull a project together and I knew that with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I could build success—if and only if, I stayed consistently laser-focused. This is where my motto “Humanity Vs. Vanity” came into mind, because I wanted to develop a tool that would have a positive effect on as many humans as possible—not only in the US, but worldwide, and from the very beginning of that Aha! moment, I kept these three words in mind as I worked through a very intense development process. 

Just Do It:

During the initial stage of conceptualization, I worried and lost a lot of sleep. I had many dreams about the various scenarios of development, of details and components that had to be procured, of money and timing for manufacturing, marketing, social media, and selling it. I was not natural-born salesperson and I did not know much about the senior living industry, but I was ready for the challenge, and one morning I woke up and the first words I muttered that day was the Nike slogan “just do it!”  

Fine Tuning The Conceptual Phase:

My process began with imagining how an ideal scent activity session should be conducted, but I knew that several actual on-site experiences with a range of attendees would eventually be necessary to make sure that the product and activity developed was as impactful and meaningful as possible. I drafted a few scenarios and imagined the various stages of presentation from start to finish that included a brief introduction about my background, educating my participants on the importance of the sense of smell and how it is so crucial for our emotional wellbeing. I reflected on my own days as a child growing up on a farm in the midwest, holidays, seasons and household tasks and pastimes that have strong links to iconic aromas, such as apple picking time and my mother making peach jam in the kitchen.  I was also mindful of America's diverse cultural patchwork and of aromas present within various religious traditions that would link to fond memories.

Scent Development, Testing, Packaging Design and Naming:

I began to call the fragrance suppliers that I worked with while at Coty and Clairol to ask them to sign Mutual Non-Disclosures and then told them about my concept. One major supplier asked me what my sales projections were, and I responded "how would I know?  This type of product doesn't exist." As I expected, they were not interested in working  on my project, but I was fortunate that 4 other major suppliers thought the concept was a fantastic humanitarian effort, and they eagerly agreed to support me on it. I requested distinctive "hyper" scents that connected to seasons and traditions ranging from simple accords such as the smells of cinnamon, vanilla extract, apples, chocolate, pineapples (thinking of my mother who was raised in Hawaii), fresh cut grass, lilacs, fresh mown hay to the more complex "impressions" such as of the smells of Tide Detergent, Irish Spring, Dial Soap and Baby Powder--all scents that should probably resonate with people of 60 years plus.

By the fall of 2016, I had about 50 different "essential smells" that I would use for my smelling sessions and determine which would resonate most by recording the scents that stimulated the most positive reactions and engaged the attendees in conversation. Through initial research, I discovered that Atria Senior Living was one of the largest communities in the country and there were several communities in the twi-state area, including one in nearby Stamford, Connecticut, so I decided to "cold call" the program director to ask if I would be allowed to come to the residence as a volunteer to give a sensory smelling session. The Program Director was open to schedule one after I explained my purpose. At this beginning stage of development I did not yet have a title for the activity and “smelling session” did not completely explain the purpose of the activity so I called it aroma therapy (not the same as aromatherapy, that incorporates essential oils and make claims for calming and stimulating). I recorded the scent prompts used on an Excel spreadsheet and continued to call on other assisted living communities in the area to request to volunteer, and was accepted by the Hebrew Home at Riverdale (New York), Benchmark Senior Living, River House Adult Day Center, The Greens At Greenwich and others. Whenever I planned travel, I always searched for an assisted living community in the destination area to inquire about giving a session. Cold calling is tough if you are not experienced at it, and because I was a novice at "pitching" I had quite a few "no thank you" responses, but I did not lose hope, and was able to add sessions in Orlando, Springdale, AR, and even Asheville, NC. Throughout the winter of 2016 and early 2017, my sessions increased, and so did the number of attendees that ranged from 4 to up to 25 people per session.  I became a regular volunteer at The Greens At Greenwich and River House where I became very attached to the residents. By early spring, my experiences at the communities helped me better understand dementia, make final scent selections, determine the best "flow" of the activity and packaging for a sensory kit so that I could sell to communities via a Shopify e-commerce site. I hired a former colleague from Coty to design The Scent Guru Group icon requesting a clean, simple design using a particular font and the color green because green signifies life. Simultaneously, I met with several of the fragrance industry's printing and packaging companies to review ideas for the outer carton and the insert that would hold the scents, clue cards and paper smelling strips. I eventually hired Orlandi, a family-owned company on Long Island to handle the rollerball procuration with specific request that the rollerballs be easy to hold and contain enough solution for over 1,000 1/2" swipes for long lastingness. They would also take charge of final graphics, filling the rollerballs, printing and pack out for a June 2017 projected launch. Now the pressure was on for what to call this product.  There were three ideas I brainstormed, and sent them to my trusted friends and family members to request their input, and the the majority of my "focus group" liked Essential Awakenings® and I added Smell.Recall.Connect as a tagline. The runner up would be saved for the next product to develop:  MindScent®.  Next, was the painstaking task of reading legalese and filing for a trademark for both names. 

What Results From These Sessions?:

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication, and it is a form that has almost been forgotten with the onslaught of social media where we only have 280 characters to express ourselves and use hashtags to call attention to what we are trying to communicate. I have witnessed many magical moments amongst attendees during Essential Awakenings® sessions that have given me the feeling that I myself, had just gotten out of a therapy session feeling revived and happy.  When we communicate scent memories and stories of our lives, we share a bit of ourselves with others and show our human side.  Take for example how our sense of smell can save us from danger as told by Vietnam veteran, Tim Huff at the River House Senior Center when he told us about being on the jungle floor with his comrades and smelled fish and garlic wafting in the humid jungle air that caused his fight or flight instinct to be activated and he and his comrades were able to escape from the scene.  Another story was from a woman who was once a florist in Manhattan and told the story of how she used lilacs in her bouquets (when smelling lilac) and ignited an exchange from another who said that the scent took her back to her childhood home in Hungary. Scent triggers memories, memories spark conversation, and residents who may have not known each other before suddenly discover they have something in common, as shown in a 2019 video of two residents who found out that they both spoke French after I talked about the scent of fresh baked baguettes in France.  What followed was a spontaneous outbreak of "Le Marseillaise" (video available on The Scent Guru Group YouTube Channel). 

Satisfaction Is:

June 2017: I was recognized by the SBA of Connecticut for an InnovateHer contest for Essential Awakenings®.  

2017 to 2020:  Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory Activities and Kits have been making their way into assisted-living communities across  the United States, households, public libraries, home care provider agencies, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and nursing homes as far as Singapore.  

May 2018:  Essential Awakening® Kits Included at Thrive Center, Inc. Innovation Showroom, Louisville, KY

June 2018:  Brain & LifeArticle, "How Scents Evoke Memory"

October 2019:  Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory Activity for Alzheimer's Association Wellness Retreat, Westchester County, NY 

2020 to 2021: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all activities at Assisted Living Communities, so I "pivoted" and repurposed Essential Awakenings® by developing a Smell Training Guide with neuroscientist, Dr. Rachel Herz for people who have lost their sense of smell (anosmia) due to COVID-19 or other illnesses for Smell Training.  This guide is available with any kit to help those who have suffered the loss of this very important sensory function and I am grateful that I was able to find another way to help humankind. 

May 2021:  ElleArticle, "A World Without Scent"  

October 25, 2021:  I will be a guest lecturer for Pratt Institute's Scent And Psychology Class, and will talk about the development of Essential Awakenings® and its usages for people with dementia and how scent can be beneficial for emotional wellbeing.

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