Smell, the Most Powerful Memory Trigger

Of our five senses, I believe the sense of smell is underrated and underappreciated. It has the power to evoke memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations, some good, some not so good. Odors can cause our hearts to beat joyously, or contract with remembered grief and pain.

Relaxing in a lavender patch

Relaxing in a lavender patch

The sense of smell diminishes as we age. Persons in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may have subtle problems identifying odors. In fact, as I reported in an earlier blog article, a deteriorating sense of smell may even precede the onset of memory problems, and be a predictor of changes in the brain. We often think of Alzheimer’s as a disease of “memory for words and pictures.” However, it may also be a disease of “memory for sensory information” as well.

The focus of this article is to provide an opportunity to reflect, as family caregivers, on our amazing sense of smell. My mentor and friend, Merle Stern, composed the meditation below. As we pause to appreciate this powerful sense, we will come to a deeper awareness and better understanding of the need for compassion when our loved ones lose this unique sense. Hopefully, it will also help you feel more centered, particularly if it has been a tough day as a caregiver.

Merle shared with me that she remembers her mother telling her that when she went off to university, she was greatly missed. To soothe the void, her mother refrained from laundering Merle’s bed linen so that she could crawl occasionally into Merle’s bed and absorb the smell. Her mother found it soothing and comforting. Years later, when handed a crying baby, Merle took a page from her “mother’s book.”  She took a coat or sweater of the baby’s mother, placed it in her arms, and then took the baby who snuggled up, contented and happy, comforted by the smell of its mother.

With these thoughts in mind, please take a few minutes to find a quiet place and a comfortable position so that you can enter into this meditation without distraction.

Let yourself drift in time and space to a scent that ignites memories you wish to recall. The scent might be that of a person or a place (like a kitchen with a wood burning stove where everyone congregated around the table to share stories.) The scent might be from an object, such as a cup of freshly brewed morning coffee, your favorite perfume that you received as a gift from a loved one, or a special flower that grew in your family’s garden.

Breathe deeply with your eyes open. Imagine fusing yourself with the smell so that it is an extension of you and you are an extension of it. With each breath you inhale as you absorb the scent, you become an extension of it. When you exhale, the scent becomes an extension of you. You become the scent; the scent is your breath. You are recognized by this scent. It is in your pores, your body cells, in your blood, in your being.

Now gently close your eyes. Visualize in your mind’s eye the form your scent has taken. How do you see it? What is the color? Is there a luminous quality? What is the shape? Reach out and touch it, making contact with its shape and texture. It exudes an odor different from the one you chose. As you absorb its color, its luminous quality, its shape, texture, and smell, visualize this new form it now takes within you.

october-22-cup-of-coffee-photo-montage-488177_1280It emerges like a symphony and you can hear music playing, created from all the smells you love such as: chocolate, freshly baked homemade bread, lilacs, lavender, apples, coffee. This symphony of smells breathes new life into you. You revel in the radiance of the smell. You feel your body nourished by it. You wake up in the morning to this smell and fall asleep surrounded by this smell. You begin to feel renewed and ready to evaluate your life as a caregiver.

Take a few moments in quiet reflection. When you feel ready, open your eyes and come back to your surroundings, feeling revived and refreshed.

Spend a few minutes journaling about this experience. At times, we as caregivers might feel like we’re caught up in a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. Ask yourself the following questions and write down your answers. That way you can come back from time to time and read what you’ve written to re-charge yourself:

  • What is missing in my life at this time? Is it solitude, communion with others, socialization, etc.?
  • How can I be more sensitive to the changing senses that my loved one may be experiencing because of the disease?
  • What can I do to enhance the quality of my life and that of my loved one?
  • What concrete plans will I make to incorporate these finding in my life?
  • Envisage your life emerging from this vantage point. What will it look like?

Our sense of smell is ten thousand times more sensitive than any of our other senses. May we come to appreciate this marvelous wonder of the human body! Helen Keller puts it so beautifully: “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!

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Please feel free to pass on this reflection to family and friends, but please give credit to Merle Stern and this website. I’d love to get your reactions and feedback about the meditation. Just jot me a note in the comments section below.

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If you’d like information about “smell training,” I’d recommend you watch this ten-minute video by Chris Kelly who is affiliated with the Monell Chemical Senses Center: https://youtu.be/wtAkWHN2xhc.

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For an inside look at how a person with dementia experiences the sense of smell, please check out this blog, “Welcome to Dementialand:” https://welcometodementialand.wordpress.com/2016/09/19/what-you-smell-in-dementialand/.

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