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An image of herbs, medicine, and flowers — the elements used in aromatherapy.

Have you ever breathed in the smell of rain after a warm summer day? Or caught the scent of winter pines as the wind cuts through the trees? Did that trigger something inside you — fond memories, perhaps? You’re not alone.

There’s science behind this scent-memory connection. In fact, neuroscientists have studied the phenomenon for decades.

Due to their unique relationship with the brain and nervous system, scents have a powerful effect on our emotional memory. It all stems from the hippocampus — the region of our brain where memories are stored. This region shares space with the amygdala, the part of the brain that signals specific emotions based on outside stimuli, like scent. It’s this interconnection that explains why some scents are so strongly linked to certain memories. And why those memories — that come flooding back when we stroll past the local bakeshop, for instance — are so vivid. 

Experts have found that we can use our sense of smell to consciously develop memories and improve our emotional state. As such, aromatherapy for seniors is a simple but effective and non-invasive stress management technique that’s making waves in the wellness industry. Results vary, but there appears to be a handful of benefits that almost every older adult seems to experience:

  • Less stress
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced pain levels
  • Reduced anxiety and depression

Luckily, scent is easy to work into virtually any routine. Something as simple as lighting incense at the end of a long day can yield positive results. Here are three aromatherapy activities for seniors that will stimulate their brains and awaken their senses:

1. Name That Aroma Game

Guessing games are fun ways to engage our sense of play. “Guess the Scent” is a particularly simple game that’s easy to enjoy:

  • Prepare small samples of scents using essential oils or spices from the pantry (think lemon, pepper, pine, etc.) and mark each sample with a different number.
  • Prepare sheets of paper that have clues or information that matches each oil that you have created a sample for (such as an image of a lemon, or pine tree). Number each clue with the number on the oil sample that matches that clue. 
  • Offer each participant a sheet of paper and a writing utensil. 
  • Allow them to smell each oil, try to guess what that particular smell is, and write each guess on their paper.
  • After they’ve breathed in each scent and made note of their guesses, go through each clue and give them the right answers. 

2. Match the Smell

Have you ever played Memory? It’s a beautiful cognitive exercise that can improve attention, focus, and concentration. This is like that, but you use scents instead of pictures or icons on each card.  

Here’s how it works:

  • Use flat cotton swabs and essential oils. Place a matching number on two different swabs and place the same essential oil on both of the matching swabs. The fun part is that you can be as basic or adventurous as you like with these essential oils.
  • Make sure each oil is used on two cotton swabs, with an even number of each (we recommend 12 total). 
  • Shuffle or mix the swabs, lay them upside down (matching number on the bottom), and then have the player find each match.

Using small cups instead of cards, you can even play this with oils.

3. Scent Scrapbooking

Discuss scents that remind your loved ones of places they’ve been or people they care about — maybe it’s peppermint that reminds them of childhood Christmas celebrations or the smell of tanned leather that brings back memories of their father. Then, based on what they’ve shared, spray a bit of cologne or essential oil on the pages of a small notebook, or attach a cotton ball with a certain essential oil to a personal photograph.

At The Moments, we know how powerful our sense of smell can be and how influential aromatherapy for elderly can be.

Learn more about the relationship between smell and memory — and explore more aromatherapy activities for the elderly!

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