When Elders Need Care: Odors

By Sylvia Todor
Sylvia Todor AuthorOlder adults often have a distinctive smell that may be a perfectly healthy and natural part of aging or that may signal health problems or other challenges they are facing. Sylvia Todor, Regional Marketing Director with Kindred at Home, explains what can cause noticeable body odors as a person ages.

If you've visited a nursing home, you may have noticed a distinct odor that you associate with older adults. In fact, Johan Lundström, Ph.D., led a study in 2012 in which participants were asked to identify which of two smells came from an older adult. His results indicate that most people were able to identify the smell of an older person versus that of a younger adult.

When you notice a distinct odor from an older relative or loved one, it can be difficult – and even a little embarrassing – to come to terms with the issue. It's important, however, to understand what could be contributing factors. While the study found that the distinctive odor can be found in older adults who are otherwise healthy, a noticeable odor may also be a sign that your loved one is having problems with either personal or dental hygiene.

Consider how many and what kind of medications the person is taking. A part of the odor could be caused by prescription drugs, which can produce a strong medicinal or chemical odor, or may cause a person to perspire more heavily. Your loved one also may be using strong-smelling over-the-counter medicines or ointments for relieving body aches and pains.

Of more concern are odors stemming from a lack of good personal hygiene. Noticeable body odors could be a sign they're not bathing as frequently as they need to or not cleaning themselves thoroughly. This could be because the person is afraid of falling in the bath or shower or because it just takes too much effort to bathe regularly. A naturally declining sense of smell in older adults also may play a part. They may not even be aware that they don't smell clean or that they need a bath.

Issues with dental hygiene also may present themselves as unpleasant odors. If you notice that your loved one consistently has bad breath, it may be they aren't brushing and flossing their teeth as well as they used to, or regularly visiting the dentist for check-ups. Dentures that haven't been replaced in the recommended time frame (7 to 10 years) are more likely to cause odors and also can cause infections in the mouth. Another contributing factor is that, as we age, we don't produce as much saliva. Saliva helps clear out germs and food that can cause bad breath.

Older adults may not talk about problems they're having because they worry about losing their independence or being a burden to their families. But when you notice strong odors that are associated with poor hygiene, it may be time to get help for your loved one. Personal home care assistance can provide the support older adults sometimes need. Whether your loved ones need help with bathing, dental hygiene or other types of personal care, home care assistance can allow them to continue to live safely in their homes. Professional caregivers also help with light housekeeping, meal preparation, transportation, walking and other daily tasks. And, just as important for you and your loved ones, personal home care assistance also provides emotional support so your loved ones know they're not alone.