The “Scents” of Smell

As a former elementary school teacher, I spent many years eagerly anticipating the month of September and the beginning of each new school year. I vividly recall the particular smells of freshly sharpened pencils, perfect packs of colourful crayons, plastic wrapped library books, sleek scribblers, fragrant felt pens, and pristine backpacks filled with aromatic snacks and lunches. As I met each fresh-faced student (and witnessed some tearful goodbyes), I couldn’t wait to share the new activities that had been planned for the first day. Reflecting upon my sweet memories of those scents, I wondered if memory could be stimulated using the sense of smell and if I could regain that same enthusiasm for daily caregiving. 

Dr. Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University says that, “Sense of smell is extremely critical for cognition, especially for the brain to handle information about the environment. If you shut down that channel of communication with the brain, it will suffer.” (

For those experiencing any kind of dementia or brain trauma, the world can often feel out of control. 

Brain injury can be traumatic (accidental injuries, concussions) or non-traumatic (seizures, strokes, heart attacks, tumors). Regardless of the cause, the resulting symptoms of disorientation, irritability, and difficulty communicating can create extra stress. For people living with this, the brain may not process sensory stimuli effectively, and this can lead to increased frustration for both their caregivers and themselves. 

As we age, we tend to lose some of our sense of smell, but research has shown that olfactory retraining could help strengthen this in the same way as we build our muscles (Colleen Walsh, The Harvard Gazette, Feb 2020). Because smells go straight to the olfactory part of the brain, they are often stored in our memory banks and can be emotionally recalled for years. It makes me think about my strong childhood memory of coming home to the aroma of Mom’s freshly baked cinnamon buns, or my dismay at the smell of liver sizzling in the cast iron skillet.  

Familiar scents can often trigger or enhance memories and giving our nose a daily workout could be good for all of us. You could create your own guessing games using kitchen ingredients or essential 
oils. Don’t try everything all at once, but maybe incorporate some of the scents naturally into your day. Think about coffee beans, lemons, oranges, bananas, apples, cinnamon, vanilla, peppermint, chocolate, onions, garlic, etc. Maybe you can elicit memories of camping holidays with smells like charred wood from a campfire, toasted marshmallows, pine needles, hot dogs, mustard, popcorn, or even BBQ sauce. Reminisce about school days while sharpening pencils or scribbling in a fresh notebook with a new pack of crayons. Halloween is a great time to buy some of the mixed bags of treats and see if you can guess the candy just from its smell. Baking is another fun activity that you could share to stimulate memories. Browse through old recipe books, smell the ingredients, share the memories, and eat the results!

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Helen Keller 

September signals me to adjust my attitude and intentionally set positive resolutions. I love the change in seasons and with each new beginning I am filled with renewed enthusiasm for this amazing life. As the leaves start to fall, try to take time to enjoy their sweet, musky fragrance and let yourself rest in nature’s natural harmony. 

The Elk Valley Caregiver Support Group meets at Mugshots at 3:30pm the 4th Wednesday of each month. 

For more info on support groups contact:
Marianne Agnew, Elk Valley Caregiver Support Facilitator:
The Caregivers Network for East Kootenay Seniors Facebook page
Toll free line 1-877-489-0803.