I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Stopping to smell the flowers

I have noticed that several smells that were once very strong and pungent have become less so to my aging nose. This was brought to my attention just last week at the Senior Center. When I arrived early in the morning to meet my fellow hikers, I was forced to pass through a large room filled with plants, and one table was covered with blooming hyacinths. Although I well know the smell of these flowers, instead of the normal smell, I felt rather than smelled their fragrance. When Amy walked into the room, after just a few minutes of having been exposed to the flowers, her eyes were streaming and she couldn't stay. I was amazed to realize that my sense of smell is beginning to wane. It is not that my nose didn't react to the hyacinths, but it didn't react as I expected.

Ever since, I have stopped to smell the flowers, wondering how much of my sense of smell is gone. I know I can still smell certain things very strongly, but I began to wonder how much of my sense is really that I just know what something smells like in memory, and how much am I truly smelling. So of course I went to the magic box (my computer and Google) and checked it out. It turns out that all of our senses fade with age. This page on Aging Changes in the Senses was particularly interesting. It is a natural process that causes all of our senses to change, and not for the better. I already knew this about vision and hearing, but not about smelling. Another interesting page is from the Social Issues Research Centre called The Smell Report.

Hanging out with older people, as I do on my hikes with the Seniors, makes me aware that not all of us change and age in the same ways. But the older we get, the more our bodies begin to wear out. Not just our senses, but our knees and feet, our joints, the spring in our step. It's a natural process. I remember once on a hike when I was showing my friends a new app I had purchased for my iPod, with bird song to help identify the birds I have been hearing. Mike could not hear it at all, which amazed me, until I remembered that for some people, losing the higher registers of sound are the first to go. It made me grateful that I have not yet lost the ability to hear birds, since their songs give me great pleasure.

I found that I have indeed lost the ability to smell certain flowers that were once such strong fragrances to me. It turns out that allergies (which I have developed here in the Pacific Northwest) can be partly to blame, but after the age of sixty, our ability to smell begins to fade. It's part of life, so I am trying to come to terms with it. Since the lilacs have just come out in the past week, I've been going from bush to bush to see if I can get even a little of their smell. I found that when the sun comes out and warms the air, I can still smell them, but nothing like I remember from years past. I can still smell roses, but many hothouse flowers are deficient in smells anyway. Some odors are still very strong, and I have noticed that artificial smells like hair spray and powders seem stronger than ever. It's an unpleasant suffocating smell.

All of this introspection has caused me to think about what the future holds. Since it has been a gradual process, there is no demarcation line between being young and vibrant and old and worn out. In some cultures, age is revered. Not mine, though. When I see an advertisement on TV for a product, almost without fail the person in the ad is younger than me. The Febreze ad just came to mind, which tries to get me to purchase an artificial odor eliminator and replace any bad smells with their chemicals. In one ad, a man has just come home from work to a home to see Febreze on the table, apparently wafting a delightful odor into the air. It makes me wonder if the onslaught of all the chemicals we add into our environment is partly responsible for our sniffers wearing out prematurely.

Okay, I guess I can't actually consider that my faculties are wearing out prematurely. They are right on track, and when I look around at many people much younger than me, I can see they are not make the right decisions to be in good shape when they reach my advanced age. Seventy is just around the corner and I am making peace with it. But oh, how I remember loving to put my nose into a bouquet of flowers and be transported to heaven!

18 comments:

Trish said...

I sometimes think we're all brainwashed about what to expect with aging - you mention the commercials with feeble people. The evening news seems to be mostly commercials by pharmaceutical companies for ailments I'd never heard of until I saw it connected to a particular drug. Restless leg syndrome comes to mind. You don't have to worry about being around the bend at any age, DJan. When you're 90 or 100, you'll still be leading everyone up those mountains!

Far Side of Fifty said...

I find that hairspray and some womens heavy handed perfume and diesel fuel and gasoline are terrible smells..they seem to be ever so strong.
I can still smell "wet dog" after Chance has been in the water..it is one of my favorite smells..but I think I may be a minority on that one.
You are not getting older..you are getting better..you may just be affected by the molds..which I am sure are abundant there. Did you notice smells more when you we in Florida visiting your sister? I think of her ofter..and wonder how she is doing with the new to her pups:)

Rita said...

I hadn't thought about losing my sense of smell, but I may have a little already now that you brought it up. Makes sense, tho. I have a family strewn with glasses and hearing aides--and I have heard talk of losing a bit of the taste buds...but I didn't think about scents. I wonder if you can lose your sense of touch, too? Just part of the territory, I guess. Yes, makes you want to go out and smell the roses. :):)

gigihawaii said...

ha! All I could think of as I read your story was the odor of farts. I'll be glad when I can no longer smell hubby's...

Linda Reeder said...

Modern, hybridized flowers, such as lilacs, often have less or no fragrance. And all flowers have more scent when they are warmed by the sun. Your sense of smell may not be suffering as much as you think.
I haven't noticed a decrease in smelling, but certainly in hearing. I am approaching the time when hearing aids might be necessary. But I can still hear bird song, thank goodness!

Retired English Teacher said...

Aging seems to rob us of the simple things that we took for granted throughout our lives. I also have lost much of my very strongly developed sense of smell. I think most of the loss is due to allergies and sinus problems. I still can smell my lavender while I sit on the porch in the summer. For that, I am grateful.

#1Nana said...

I've had a terrible time with allergies this season...probably because we've had so much rain and everything is growing and green. We're usually not this lush in eastern Oregon. It has been a reminder to me that for so many years I took feeling good for granted. Good health was the norm.The new normal involves way too many medications...and now I have to worry about losing my sense of smell!!!

Donna B said...

Well, this was depressing! My husband is 70 and he has not had a good "sniffer" since I met him almost 11 years ago. I will be 64 next month, and thankfully, my "sniffer" is still in pretty good shape. I can smell both the good, the bad and the ugly quite quickly...but my eyes are fading fast. It seems I need new glasses every year. The doctor tells me it is "not a noticeable change" but I THINK SO! My hearing is not what it used to be either...

Arkansas Patti said...

Gee, does that mean those Mock Orange plants I bought might not be scentless after all? It might be my wore out sniffer?? Shoot. Oh well, I can still smell the roses. I'll try to be happy with that.

SquirrelQueen said...

I like Trish's comment.

I walked out into my yard the other day and the scent of the lilacs was wonderfully strong, I would hate to lose that.

Maybe it's best not to dwell on what we don't have and enjoy what remains.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

Hi DJan, I stopped in from Abe Lincoln's blog and enjoyed this post as well as the very poignant one for Mother's Day. It saddened me to read of your losses, but heartened me at the same time. Thanks for sharing some of your life's memories.

Red said...

I really like your topic today. Aging is an interesting and varied process. Since I'm elderly I have to be mindful of the process. We have to live with the process so we might as well go with a good attitude. I always like to compare how my face has changed with age and then think that everything inside has aged and changed too even if we can't see it.

Nancy said...

I've noticed the loss of smell lately, too. But I just thought maybe the flowers were not producing fragrance - you know like the roses you can but to plant that don't smell like roses? I bought some freesias for my house the other day, that are supposed to be very fragrant, and I barely smell them! Ugh - maybe it's me...

Nancy said...

Umm - that would be "buy" not "but" - geeze

Grandmother said...

In the "Smell Report" it says that "training" enhances smell. So keep smelling, it's training! I haven't noticed a decrease yet but I have rosemary, mint, basil, and jasmine on my balcony and put my nose in it daily.

Whitney Lee said...

Motherhood seems to have increased my sense of smell...unfortunately I can now smell a dirty diaper from the other side of the house.

I like Grandmother's comment-keep sniffing!

Jo said...

"It makes me wonder if the onslaught of all the chemicals we add into our environment is partly responsible for our sniffers wearing out prematurely." I think you have nailed it. We are inundated with fragrances everywhere, and we become desensitized.

I like to think we age like wine. :-)

Star said...

I can still smell ok (I think) although I don't suppose as well as when I was 20! However, I will read the article you recommended because I hit 60 next October. That gives me just a few months left to 'smell the roses'. I do agree that chemical smells are bad for us and I am allergic to lots of those. I hate that we have so many chemical smells competing with the natural ones.