I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest dreads about visiting rest homes or being put in one to live out my last years is the SMELL. As a girl visiting my grandma in the rest home, I dreaded the smell of the place. It would hit my nose the moment I opened the door of the facility. In some homes it was worse than in others.

Folks said it was the smell of urine, but I wondered. I got pretty used to the smell of urine on my first trip to London in 1970 when I walked through the long tunnels of the Underground or used the public toilets at train stations. That was urine, but it was not the smell of a rest home.

In Folding Memory, Daniel and Cathy seem dismayed by Glen’s condition but never mention the smell of the place. Perhaps their grief over his memory loss drives out lesser concerns. However, folks are very sensitive to smells, and I read one checklist that advised using the nose when determining what nursing home to choose, implying that an odor equaled a bad facility.

Most interesting, though, was an article called “The Truth About Old-People Smell” that posits another explanation for the characteristic smell of old age, whether in institutions or just in Grandma’s house. It claims that because of the natural aging process of human skin and the mechanisms that keep the skin healthy, old folks have a distinctive body odor called “nonenal.”

Follow the link to Dr. Charlene Brannon’s article for the scientific explanation, but suffice it to say that nonenal is a natural side effect of aging that can be reduced but not eliminated by simple hygiene. Ingredients in regular soaps are not effective against it. She also concedes that elderly people often have a hard time bathing regularly, whether at home or in care. These factors make nonenal a tough challenge.

On the other hand, she mentions that some people find the odor rather nostalgic if it reminds them of their beloved grandparents’ house. I was glad to learn about this new aspect of aging that people never talk about. Again, shame or shyness adds to our suffering, whether we are elders or family of elders. Openness and compassion can take away the discomfort caused by ignorance and misunderstanding.


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