Aging Parents’ Hygiene–Do Old People Smell?

…and if a person smells, how do you tell him/her?

Last week “The Truth about ‘Old People Smell,’ awaited me in my gmail. Coincidentally I had just posted about how often elders should bathe so I was curious about “the truth.”

Dr. Charlene Brannon, author, is a PhD, former professor, Product Mgr. for Mirai Clinical, and spokesperson in a YouTube presentation that endorses Mirai, a product that rids the smell, caused by Nonenal, which is a new word to me and perhaps you.

Nonenal “is widely misunderstood in the United States,” according to Dr. Brannon’s article. It’s “a natural by-product of the aging process, caused by the deterioration of the skin’s antioxidant defenses….it isn’t water soluble, can remain on the skin…even after intense scrubbing…the smell caused by nonenal persists, even in extremely clean environments.”

Over 130 comments followed (begun in early December so “The Truth…” must have been re-blogged last week), with comments ranging from–

I disagree with these claims. I’ve worked as a professional caregiver for more than 13 years…This smell is VERY common in nursing homes and such places….but it can’t be ‘normal’ or virtually everyone would get it. I really think the study needs to be more carefully defined and redone…
very helpful article, forewarned is forearmed

Thank GOD I have a kid sister
with a nose that works, as mine
& if I stunk,
she would be the 1st one to let me know.

(Scientific American published a 2012 article, based on research, entitledOld Person Smell Is Real, but Not Necessarily Offensive.”see related below. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 2001 published the Nonenal study–see related below.)

My m-i-l never smelled and lived to 101 independently at home. Neither my mother nor father (Mom died 2 weeks short of 89 and Dad at 941/2)  smelled. Nor did their homes. That’s an admittedly teeny sample of 3 elders I knew well.

I’m left wondering….

What I’m not wondering about is the importance of proper hygiene for elders. Well-respected, documented research confirms connections with others are essential in aging well and I daresay people who are smelly don’t attract others.

This brings up the importance of doing the awkward favor: telling someone you care about that he or she smells (or whatever)….and the dilemma: What to say. How to say it.

I pondered this, when an elderly widower friend, Bob, began to smell of urine. He was a genius–a fascinating individual, clean-shaven. I had every reason to believe he showered every day (read about Bob in 2013 post). But—there was this odor.  Being enclosed in a car with him was very unpleasant for me.

Model for difficult conversations:

From my counseling training I automatically use “I statements,” only objective facts/observations, no judgments. I try to communicate in a neutral way that encourages further conversation and/or offers a face-saving explanation. I don’t want a confrontation.

I initiated the conversation with something like: “BobI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve noticed there’s an odor present when I’ve been with you the last few weeks. (Inclusive, nonjudgmental, observation.) “Is it getting difficult to shower?” (A face-saving possibility.)

Feeling comfortable saying what needs to be said may take practice, but you’ll find a way that works. And the response you get may surprise–it did me.

Bob sounded horrified, saying something like “I shower every day.” I responded something like “So what do you think is making me smell something?” His answer: “It may be my clothes. It’s gotten very hard to carry them down to the laundry room” (his studio apartment was in a building) “so I don’t wash them often……..”  Surprise! Fixable.

The local family counseling service sent a home aide to do light housekeeping…including washing– and putting fresh sheets on Bob’s bed. End of smell.

We help parents age well when we diplomatically point out “embarrassing stuff,” don’t we? As for “The Truth,” you decide.

Scientific American magazine, May 30, 2012:  “Old Person Smell” is Real but Not Necessarily Offensive
Journal of Investigative Dermatology 2001 article about Nonenal study–After “Abstract” read ” Materials and methods”, stating “Subjects were 22 healthy individuals, 13 of whom were male, 9 female.” There must be a more recent, larger study but it eludes me. Please reply when/if you find it.

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