Scents bring back memories when reminiscing with dementia

Scent is a powerful tool to trigger memories. Scientific research has shown that scents are deeply stored in the memory. You can use this fact if you reminisce with elderly people with dementia due to, for example, Alzheimer’s disease. No matter how strong memories of certain smells from the past are, there are also limitations when using smell as a trigger in elderly people with dementia. But if used carefully, you can use smell as a sensory impulse in an activity for these elderly people, regardless of whether the dementia is caused by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or another disease. Although smell is of course just one of our senses that trigger memories of something or someone.

Scents and memories

Scents have the ability to refresh our memory and make us remember events, people and, for example, dishes from the past. You can use this information in activities with people with dementia to trigger these memories. There are a number of aspects that you need to pay attention to in order to use fragrances successfully.

Using strong ‘odors’ for reminiscence with elderly people with dementia

All our senses deteriorate as we get older. We don’t always think about this. Old age not only reduces the quality of vision and hearing, but also of smell, taste and even touch. This means that the chance that a certain scent will actually be smelled by the elderly is greater if the air is stronger. In other words: our nose is also deteriorating. For example, among the flowers, the scent of roses is generally quite soft, if they smell at all! The scent of flowers such as lilacs or freesias, on the other hand, is quite strong.

Using a limited number of scents to trigger memories in Alzheimer’s clients

When reminiscing with people (regardless of any form of dementia), you can only use a modest number of scents. That’s because our sense of smell is not very good. We simply cannot sniff a different scent with our nose in quick succession. In addition, the smell of pipe tobacco, for example, can spread throughout the entire room in which you are sitting and linger there. This then disrupts the ability to smell the next scent you offer clients.

Perfume and emotions

When reminiscing, the scent given off by perfume, for example, may be pleasant for one person, but not for another. A scent is often connected to a certain feeling or emotion. Suppose you had a grandmother that you adored. She always smelled of cologne. Chances are, especially if she was the only one from your youth who used cologne, that you like that scent. For example, the smell of freshly ground coffee is not necessarily pleasant. That just depends on whether someone likes and loved coffee. Odors are therefore not a neutral factor. So be aware that, unexpectedly for you, a certain smell could suddenly upset someone. In elderly people with dementia, for example due to vascular or fronto-temporal dementia, you should always look for positive memories.

A scent is something specific

Not only is it personal whether or not a perfume is positive for someone, but it is also personal in the sense that not everyone knows the same scents. Anyone who has lived in Delft may know and recognize the smell of yeast and spirits because Delft had a factory where yeast and spirits were produced. For example, my father used to smell like wallpaper paste, but not all fathers did that. The consequence of this is that if you want to use the nose as a sense when reminiscing with seniors with dementia, you must choose scents that are recognizable by (almost) everyone.
In the game ‘The smells of you know who’ by Weergaaf, six well-known smells were deliberately chosen. Food odors because odors associated with food are familiar to many elderly people.

The preservation and concentration of the air of something

Scents are fleeting. This means that they spread easily through the air. Once exposed to oxygen, the power of a breath of air can quickly diminish. This means that you have to ‘preserve’ the smell of something, for example in a closed jar or bottle. Not always easy.

Hypersensitivity and allergy to odors

Some people are hypersensitive or even allergic to the smell of something. It can hit their eyes. Their eyes then start to water. This is often something individual. For example, someone cannot tolerate lavender. Many people are sensitive to onions, but not allergic.

Recognize and name

Recognizing the smell of something does not always mean that an elderly person with Alzheimer’s or Vascular dementia can always identify that smell. The scent can evoke something, but sometimes the name or word for that scent is not (directly) triggered!

Strongly scented, recognizable products

Cleaning odors

  • Scrub wax
  • Silver polish
  • Copper polish
  • Shoe polish
  • spirits
  • Mothballs


Eau de Cologne of 4711


  • Boldoot, 4711, Eau de Colgone
  • Lavender (scented cushions)
  • Aftershave



  • pipe tobacco
  • shag
  • cigarettes (depending on the type)
  • cigars


Food odors

  • Freshly ground (!) coffee
  • Anise (anise cubes or just made anise milk)
  • Freshly baked apple pie
  • Onion (freshly chopped)
  • Garlic (freshly chopped)
  • Vinegar
  • Lager (some types of beer smell stronger than others)
  • Peppermint
  • Herring



  • Freesias
  • Broom
  • Lilacs
  • Hyacinths


Conclusion on the use of scents to retrieve positive memories in dementia

You can see that there is a lot involved if you want to use scents in an activity in a nursing home or in a care center for people with psychogeriatric disorders. But you now have plenty of ideas and it is smart to combine the use of smell with the use of all our other senses. Supervising activities always requires the necessary creativity and ingenuity from welfare employees or activity supervisors. That is a given in general, but especially if you have to look for scents.
You can also just look in your cupboards: you may still have a bottle of Boldoot, anise cubes from de Ruyter or a can of Kiwi shoe polish. Perhaps without you knowing it, you have a piece of Dutch history in your home, which you can talk about with the elderly with dementia!

read more

  • Reminiscence in dementia: stimulate all senses
  • Remembering, reminiscing for dementia with objects
  • Retrieving/reminiscing memories in dementia: Themes
  • Reminiscing/reminiscing in dementia: reasons
  • Reminiscing/retrieving memories in dementia: methodology
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