How Smells Affect People with Dementia

Olfactory Stimulation and Dementia

By Kristi Beck, Executive Director, Sydney Creek Memory Care

At Sydney Creek, we recognize the importance of non-pharmacological therapy and person-centered, meaningful activities in the treatment of dementia.  Olfactory stimulation is a useful tool in addressing both goals. Scent, in the form of aromatherapy, can help elevate mood and reduce agitation, lower blood pressure and pulse rate.

Olfactory stimulation can be used to elicit positive memories and provide a sense of well-being.


Lavender is the most popular and widely used scent to calm feelings of anxiety, aggression and agitation.  In addition to lavender, we include Bergamot and Yuzu essential oils in our community.  Bergamot is a mood elevating and calming oil, also used to relieve insomnia. Yuzu essential oil has been used in Japanese culture for centuries.  It is a scent similar to mandarin or grapefruit and its crisp aroma can create an atmosphere that is refreshing, especially during times of worry and tension.

We deliver these oils by placing a few drops in a diffuser or massaging them into the temples of the head or dabbing them on the wrists.

Scents and Memories

Some believe that people with dementia lose their sense of smell or the ability to identify scents.  However, it is possible for a scent to trigger a memory without knowing the specific name of the scent and anything that can elicit a positive memory should be a part of the daily life of anyone living with dementia.  The scent of Coppertone® sunscreen can instantly transport a person to a relaxing day at the beach, without knowing exactly what the scent is.

A woman shared that scent of patchouli oil always brought her husband back to the summer of 1967 in the Haight Asbury neighborhood of San Francisco; a time when they were young and carefree.

In Sydney Creek neighborhood kitchens, or “hearts of the home”, residents experience comforting smells such as clean laundry and cookies baking.

The sense of smell is often overlooked in creating a personal history of a resident with dementia and providing items for their stay in a community.   Families and care providers should consider significant life events of your loved one and scents associated them. Memory Care communities can safely store products, and residents can access them with the assistance of a caregiver.  Follow the link for ideas on creating your own personalized scent library for your loved one living with dementia.