A rank smell had permeated our basement for weeks. I couldn’t find the source so chalked it up to our muggy summer and a husband who refuses to let the dehumidifier run.
When we got back from ten days away, the odor, now thick as mud, impregnated my nose. I asked Peter to help track it down, but his sense of smell only extends to candles and perfume, both of which he dislikes intensely. I was on my own.
“Welcome to Dementialand: Living, Loving and Laughing through Alzheimers and Related Dementias” is an informative blog by Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD. A gerontologist at University of Northern Iowa, her expertise centers on many things we caregivers need to know. She has written a series on how dementia changes the way individuals experience the world, one post about each of the five senses. “Smell” couldn’t have been more timely for me.
“Many people…notice that as they get older, they no longer detect smells like they [did] in the past. However, the change…for individuals with dementia is more severe and can even be dangerous.” Burning food and smoke, for example. “Smell has an important function for us,” she says. “…People with dementia may lose the ability to interpret certain smells as signs of danger.… Smoke alerts us to fire…that connection is eventually lost for people with dementia.”
Eshbaugh’s words reminded me that my husband’s grandfather, over ninety then, had nearly set his house on fire because he forgot he’d put the kettle on for tea. Not long after, Peter’s dad had to move the old fellow to a nursing home, because of his own Parkinson’s. He could no longer look after his father. Peter burned up our electric kettle several months ago when he put it on the gas stove to boil. He didn’t smell it smoldering, and I, upstairs reading, didn’t either. The next morning when Peter picked up the kettle, chunks of plastic fell off the bottom. I realized what happened, but he didn’t. He had no memory of it and wondered why the kettle wouldn’t work.
“Smell also alerts us to spoiled food. … It doesn’t work that way for people as dementia progresses,” Eshbaugh writes. “Keep in mind that our actions are based on how we experience the world. Dementia alters [that] by changing sensory perceptions. … And those experiences are based on what they do and do not taste, see, hear, touch, and smell.”
And that brings me back to our stinking basement.
The mystery wasn’t solved by Friday evening and I was tired. I decided to fall back on a frozen pizza from the basement refrigerator. When I opened the freezer a stench rolled out like a London fog, yet everything inside was solid. I opened the fridge door and gagged. Hm, something suspicious in the crisper drawer.
Ah-h, two formerly frozen packages of trout my friend John had brought us months ago. I’d planned to fix them one night, then changed my mind. I asked Peter to put them back in the freezer, but obviously, he’d put them in the fridge instead. I never thought to check, then or while I sleuthed.
Since he can’t smell anything, he got the task of triple-bagging the reeking fish, dousing them with baking soda, and trashing them.
Nancy Drew would have laughed at my noticeably lacking skills.
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest winner, 2016 —
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Caregivers’ resource: “Welcome to Dementialand: Living, Loving, and Laughing through Alzheimer’s and other Dementias,” Elaine Eshbaugh, Phd.