I watch as Sandra agitates the salt shaker over her food—once, twice, three times, four times over her chicken alone. Then, after taking a bite, she reaches for the salt again. I can tell that, as an older adult, she has gotten into the habit of seasoning her food more and more. She’s discouraged and frustrated, reaching for tastes that she can no longer find.
Most of us take for granted our senses and the vivid experiences they provide us on a daily basis. When our capacity to sense the world’s dimensions lessens—especially through taste and smell—doctors weigh the value of treatment against more pressing, life-threatening concerns and often dismiss it as an unavoidable condition of growing older.
Our loved ones need our understanding and initiative when they experience the loss of taste and smell in old age. The task falls to us, as caregivers, to advocate for our aging loved ones and help inspire them with new ways to explore the scents and flavors of life—ways that are healthier and more effective than adding extra salt or extra sugar. The challenge is to reconnect with our very awareness of ourselves and the world, to treat our senses as valuable, integral parts of our health and well-being.
Loss of Taste and Smell in Old Age Doesn’t Have to Mean Disconnection
Conditions of vision and hearing loss typically get more attention from professionals than the loss of smell and taste do, but these easily overlooked problems in the nose and mouth can lead to serious health consequences as well. Taste and smell are basic mechanisms that guide us to the freshness and variety of food our bodies need. Loss of taste and smell can lead to loss of appetite, then malnutrition, which puts older adults at risk of weakened immune, physical, and cognitive functioning.
Even harder to see are the emotional dangers of sensory loss, such as depression and isolation. Food is a central part of our personal, social, and cultural lives, and smell and taste help to anchor us in our experiences. When this connection to experience is strained or gone altogether, we lose not just our interest in food, but also our interest in activities and gatherings centered around eating.
Because memories are so closely linked to the sense of smell, older adults may also feel disconnection and isolation from parts of themselves. As caregivers, we can meet our aging loved ones at the edge of this slippery slope and help them to reconnect with parts of themselves that lie across the divide of taste and smell. The great news is that this challenge calls for lots of creativity and fun in the midst of careful guidance. Here are some simple ways to help an older adult care for and engage with their senses, even as they evolve with age.
Don’t Dismiss an Aging Adult’s Symptoms
Encourage doctors visits that might help your aging loved one get to the root of their loss of smell or taste. Though weakened senses can be a normal part of aging, some or all of their symptoms may be a result of medications, dental problems, a dry mouth, sinus infections and allergies, smoking, or head injuries. While age-related changes in smell and taste aren’t reversible, dismissing an older adult’s sensory deficiency as inevitable may mean neglecting true solutions that could help bring back a vibrant part of life for them.
Get Your Aging Loved One Involved in the Kitchen
If they aren’t already there with you, bring your loved one into the kitchen when it’s time for food prep. Connecting them with this process of creativity and transformation can bridge some of the gaps that they experience when eating. You can help them to tune into their senses of touch, sight, and hearing as you chop, mix, and cook.
Try New Recipes Together
My own grandfather revealed to me the silver lining of age-related smell and taste loss: He has a fresh and enthusiastic interest in foods he disliked and would never even touch in the past. For him, these are spicy foods, which open up whole continents of cuisine for him to explore. He says he needs the extreme flavors of spices, onion, and garlic to experience taste. But even more so, the fulfillment comes from his adventures into new territory with ingredients, food preparation, and cultural insight. This newness awakens and inspires his other senses. With the aging adult in your care, spice up some of the old recipes with new ingredients or seek out brand-new ideas.
Enhance the Other Elements of Taste Experience
Our experience of food involves different tastes, like salty and sweet, but it also involves things like texture and color. When an older adult’s senses of smell and taste are limited, it helps to stimulate the other senses when eating. Incorporate more of the textures they enjoy—creamy or crunchy—and, when eating, encourage them to focus on that aspect of the meal. You can also put more emphasis on colors. Just like taste and smell, our sight can help lead us to the freshness and variety our bodies crave. In fact, different colors signify different nutrients in food, and our bodies need a great range of nutrients, so encourage your older loved one to eat a rainbow.
Actively Exercise All the Senses
Consider sensory exercise to be part of your daily routine together. If you’re out for a walk, help open an older adult’s eyes to the colors and textures of the sky and clouds; help them to take off their shoes and feel the grass on under their feet; find a place to sit down, close your eyes, and listen for the birds and other sounds together. Challenge your loved one to sit down and get dressed with their eyes closed, so they have to stretch their sense of touch to make up for the missing sight. Challenge their hearing by having them, again, sit and close their eyes while you move around the house and call out to them. They can guess where you’re speaking from based on their perception of the sound and the space around them. Continue to explore new ways to challenge aging adults’ senses.
While it’s true that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, we are creating new memories every day that are linked to the details we’re most awake for. Consider the loss of senses with old age to be an opportunity for adventure and exploration. You can help your aging loved one to awaken their senses through everyday experiences and, in that way, to be more present for life. Each day presents new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures, and we can always find a way to experience them if we remember to tune in.
Institute on Aging offers programs, services, and resources for older adults with sensory and other challenges. Reach out to us for more information and creative ideas for caregivers.