The lilac effect 

Smells can bring out cherished memories for people living with dementia.

dementia illustration

Our long-term memories are amazing things. Much like music, even in the throes of advanced dementia, a certain smell, unique and identifiable in its essence, can trigger memories long since stowed away in the crevices of our minds.

Our noses can detect 50,000 distinct scents, but it’s our brains that truly make the connections. They can forge pathways between the present and past in ways that take us back to our roots — or that bring trauma to the surface.

In my work in memory care, I grew close to a woman named Betty. Betty often would ask me if I was still in school or if I had a girlfriend. At one point, she suggested she and I return to her room alone and see where things went.

Of course, I blushingly declined the saucy offer from my 85-year-old friend, knowing it was the illness of dementia causing her to repeat questions in a short time period, to lose sight of socially appropriate boundaries and to struggle with her cognitive organization.

But memories, those long past and perhaps seemingly forgotten, could still come to life through scent, I soon found.

As Betty neared her end stages, she became wheelchair bound, propped up with a pillow in what was essentially a high-back recliner on four wheels. It had all the tilts and adjustments possible, and though it drove like a boat, it was navigable. This meant she was mobile, and free to get outside on a nice day, despite her condition.

I took her to the courtyard to enjoy a beautiful May day, remembering she had a lilac bush at the house she owned for around 40 years. She was mute and barely responsive. But I talked to her in a warm voice as the impact of each bump on the concrete path seemed to shoot right through the rolling recliner into her weakening muscles.

“You had a lilac bush in your backyard, didn’t you, Betty?”

Her senses seemed engaged. I continued: “The smell of lilacs is so unique.”

I held the flower close to her nose and then traced it along the back of her hand. She opened her eyes.

“It’s a beautiful May day,” I said “The lilacs are in full bloom. Does that smell take you anywhere?”

A woman of fewer words over time, a pattern of decline common in dementia, she stayed silent. Just as I started to continue my dialogue, a sound mumbled from her lips. Her grey hair, still curled and permed as she liked it, cradled her round, inviting eyes, now fixed on mine. With well over a dozen grandkids and great-grandkids, she was the typical “grandma.” As a result, I felt connected to her, just as I had with seniors and anyone else with dementia. We shared a sense of trust. Respect. Patience.

I stopped speaking and listened, awaiting her words of wisdom. She shifted her head position with the pace of an aged, rigid turtle. Out from her poured words. Beautiful words. Words doused with memories untouched in the tangles of a mind stricken by degeneration for years, with vivid descriptions of her by-then deceased husband, who she lived with in the home with the lilac bush. Stories, brief stories, bounced through her brain and fueled by the miracle of her senses, emerged coherent, logical, complete.

My soul seemed to join her in the process of catharsis. The release of the memory, by way of speaking, seemed to set her free.

A week later, Betty died.

I attended her funeral and shared with her daughter the story of our visit to the courtyard. Tears, not of sadness, but of joy, swelled in her daughter’s eyes, despite her urge to suppress any emotion and remain stoic.

Tears. Beautiful tears. Tears doused with memories, from the untangled neurons of a healthy brain, streaked down her face as she embraced me in a hug. But, unlike for her mom that day in the courtyard, the words themselves seemed more difficult to find.

Nate Cannon is a Twin Cities-based author, policy consultant and dementia specialist.