I have written in past blogs about some of the inevitable decline of physical capabilities associated with aging, and a lot of them are not really a surprise. We all walk more slowly, we see and hear less clearly, and strength and endurance just are not what they may have been at age thirty by the time we hit seventy. But we do not always think about the sense of smell becoming less acute with age, and there are really important medical and safety risks when a person’s sense of smell begins to fail.
Research reported some time ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented that people’s olfactory acuity slips as they age, so much so that it may surprise you to know that 62.5% of persons over age 80 had “impaired olfaction.” Only about 15% of men and women over age 80 were even aware of their shortfall. So what, you may say?
Elders who age in place also are typically living in older housing, living quarters in which the heating system also is growing older. If that older resident is unable to smell the telltale odors emanating from their malfunctioning furnace they may be at risk for a furnace explosion or even carbon monoxide poisoning. (One cannot smell carbon monoxide, but there commonly are other odors accompanying a poorly functioning furnace.)
If an older adult’s sense of smell is off, they may not be finding the same pleasure they once did with the food at mealtime. (Smelling food is a significant part of tasting food.) Over the long run, this can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss or even malnutrition.
When an elder begins to lose their sense of smell, they may be less able to tell when their own body odor has become acute. This, in turn, is an indicator not just of poor olfaction, but perhaps that an elder is less able to shower or bathe or even dress themselves independently. It can be a sign of eroding activities of daily living and the mobility issues this represents or a urinary tract infection. “Bad breath” can signal tooth decay, acute diabetes (breath smells like acetone) or other conditions.
In separate reporting, medical researchers have found that diminished sense of smell also can be tied to early onset Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease.
Now, this is the part where being a caregiver becomes hard if you notice telltale odors this autumn when visiting mom’s or dad’s home. As this the season up north for turning on the furnace, then you should say something. If you see signs of weight loss or decaying food in the fridge, say something. And even if you simply notice that the hug from mom or dad imparts a less than pleasant bouquet, say something. All of these are a “sniff test” that can save your elder from bigger problems.
Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families throughout metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to Charlotte Bishop.