Using Scent to Manage Mood Changes in a Senior with Alzheimer’s

July 24, 2017

managing mood changes

Our sense of smell is more powerful than we know. One way of managing mood changes for people with Alzheimer’s is to make use of different scents.

If you’ve ever felt transported by the scent of pumpkin pie or fall leaves, then you know the power of scent. Or if you’ve ever lit a lavender candle and felt almost instantly relaxed, you also know how different scents can alter your mood.

The close connection between scent and mood could make a difference in how the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are managed.

If you’re caring for a senior loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you may have already witnessed the mood changes that this disease can bring. Whether it’s unexpected and seemingly unwarranted changes in demeanor or a trend toward aggressive behavior (often paired with cursing), mood changes can be unsettling for caregivers.

What Causes Mood Swings in People with Alzheimer’s?

Mood swings in older adults who have Alzheimer’s disease can be caused by a number of factors.

Possible Causes of Mood Swings:

  • Frustration with their inability to understand something
  • Feeling overwhelmed with too many requests or questions
  • Undiagnosed health problems
  • Hectic and/or loud environment
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation

Scientists know that scents actually do affect people’s moods. This knowledge could make a difference for caregivers. Specifically, it could help them better manage difficult moods of someone they’re caring for.

How Scents Can Impact Mood

Scents work on the human brain to affect mood, but not like a drug does. A scent can trigger a memory because it’s associated with something in a person’s past.

Let’s say you grew up smelling pumpkin pie spice every Fall. If you loved Fall, the scent of those spices years later can bring back distant memories, even decades after you’ve smelled them last.

It’s called “associative learning.” That means your brain associates two events because of your past. Do you think of baseball games when you eat hot dogs? That’s associative learning at work in your brain.

Likewise, if you light a scented candle that has a mulled cider fragrance. You may think of winter holidays or ice skating. Again, it’s an association created by your brain.

Scents May Help Calm Your Senior Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease

One study showed that participants in a study reacted more strongly to odor-evoked memories than they did to verbal communication. That speaks to the power of scent in triggering reactions among people.

For caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s, that’s an important realization.

If you could trigger fond memories in your senior loved one with scent, you may be able to mitigate some of the mood swings they experience. You’ll have to experiment with different scents to find the right ones, of course. Not everyone has the same associations in place in their brains.

For example, freshly-mowed grass might trigger happy memories of summertime fun for you, but for someone who grew up in a city, there might be no association at all. Also, associations can be negative, too. When you’re experimenting with different scents, be on the lookout for increased agitation with any particular odor.

Some Scents to Try

  1. Lemon is said to have a calming effect on the mind. It can also be used to help improve concentration.
  2. This spice is also said to improve concentration, which could help your loved one when they’re feeling agitated because of confusion or disorientation.
  3. Essential oils that include rosemary are believed to improve memory and to promote alertness. Added to that is it’s also a wonderful smelling scent!
  4. Lavender is calming and may help quell stress. Any time your senior loved one is agitated, try placing a few drops of lavender essential oil in to a diffuser.

A Final Word

Finally, be patient when you’re trying to manage mood swings in your senior loved one. Keep in mind the behavior is the disease, not the person you love and care for.

At Legacy Senior Living, we recognize the tremendous job that family caregivers do. If you’d like to learn more about how our communities can help you manage a loved one’s Alzheimer’s, whether it’s by offering memory care or respite care, please call the community nearest you to schedule a private tour!