I went to an estate sale last week. I didn’t stay too long due to the odor.
What Causes That “Old-Person Smell”?
1. Closed Quarters
“Most older people’s homes I go into have the heat on, the windows shut tight, the shades drawn, and the curtains pulled over the shades,” says Brenda Avadian, founder of The Caregivers Voice, a newsletter for caregivers. “There’s absolutely no fresh air.” Dislike of drafts is one primary reason older people’s homes are so stuffy, Avadian says. “Older people feel cold all the time because the body begins to lose temperature regulation. And when rooms are hot, stuffy, and airless, you get mold and bacteria growing, in addition to general stuffiness.”
Fear is another factor, experts say. “Many old people live in fear because they feel vulnerable; they know they can’t defend themselves,” says Brenda Thompson, patient care director for Tri-Country Home Nursing Services in Westbury, New York. “They start to think everyone’s watching them, and an open window is an invitation to a robbery. Also, they’re afraid if they open the window they’ll forget to close it again.”
2. The Cleaning Conundrum
As people age, they have a harder time keeping their homes clean — often for good reason, says Barbara Moscowitz, director of Geriatric Social Work at Massachusetts General Hospital. Because of the risk of dizziness and falling, older adults are often told by their doctors not to bend down, not to climb up on chairs or ladders, not to kneel or stoop. And how are you going to keep a house clean without being able to do those things? Dust, mold, mildew, and dander — the word for sloughed-off skin cells — accumulate and cause air to smell stale, while rotten food and accidents — pet and human — that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned up add to the “pee-yew” factor.
3. Laundry Limitations
We think nothing of throwing a load of clothes in the wash whenever we need to, but that changes as we get older, experts say. “You’re not moving as fast, so you probably don’t work up a sweat, and it’s a lot of work to do laundry. So you hang your shirt back up in the closet, figuring you can get one more day’s wear out of it,” says Barbara Moscowitz. If an older person’s house has an unpleasant musty odor and you can’t tell where it’s coming from, open the closet, she suggests. Often you’ll find it filled with clothes in need of washing and shoes that could do with airing or replacing.
4. Sensory Decline
One explanation for the “old person smell” is surprisingly simple: An older adult’s sense of smell isn’t as keen as a younger person’s, experts say. “By the time you’re in your seventies, you’ve lost 75 percent of your sense of smell,” says Brenda Thompson. “You don’t notice the odor, so you have no idea others are reacting to it.” When someone seems to slack off on hygiene issues, from body odor to bad breath to unpleasant smells in the home, it may be lack of awareness rather than lack of concern that’s to blame. Loss of vision is another contributing factor, says Barbara Moscowitz. “If Grandma has a stain on her blouse or there’s a film of mold on the bathroom walls, it’s not that she doesn’t care; she doesn’t know it’s there,” says Moscowitz.
5. Dental Dilemma
As we age, the tissues of the mouth produce less saliva, which is why dry mouth is a common affliction of old age. “Saliva is our best defense against bad breath,” says geriatric dentist Randy Geller of Bellmore, New York. “It washes the mouth clear of food particles and bacteria.” Snoring and mouth breathing while sleeping are also more common as we age, drying out the tissues of the mouth even more.
6. Thirsty No More
Dehydration is startlingly common in older people, says geriatrician Eric Shapira, and it contributes to their smell in a number of ways. “As we age, our pituitaries stop sending the signal that tells us we’re dehydrated, so we stop feeling thirsty,” Shapira says. It’s common, he says, for older people to drink very little without realizing it. In addition, elderly people whose mobility is low may find it tiring to get up to use the bathroom, so they drink less by choice.
7. Bathing Issues
An aversion to taking baths often occurs late in life, experts say, particularly in men. The reason: Taking a bath or shower can seem like a lot of work, and they have fewer reasons to clean up. For others, fear and frailty prevent them from bathing. “We see many older adults who can’t bathe as often as they want to,” says Moscowitz. “Taking a bath or shower can be dangerous if you’re frail, and it’s common for older adults to develop a fear of falling, because they know they won’t be able to get up.”
8. That Medicinal Smell
Older adults often take a lot of medications, which can cause a subtle chemical odor that we associate with aging. In particular, says Eric Shapira, any sulphur drug has a strong smell when excreted through the pores. More noticeable still can be the medicinal smell of certain ointments and creams popular with older adults. “Many older people use products like Ben-Gay for sore muscles, or patches for arthritic pain,” says Barbara Moscowitz. These products, made with menthol and other chemicals, can have a strong medicinal smell. Vicks Vapo-Rub, also made with menthol, remains popular for those with breathing difficulties, while those with skin conditions use a number of different creams and ointments, all of which have an odor.
9. Cleaning Without Really Cleaning
One of the odors we associate with aging is that chemical-laden antiseptic smell that assails you when you walk through the doors of some [nursing homes]. That astringent scent comes from ammonia and other antiseptic cleaners and air fresheners that facilities use to clean up accidents. The problem is, in many cases, they’re not doing a thorough deep cleaning, and then they use products to try to mask the smells, says Barbara Moscowitz. “What you get is that ammonia-antiseptic smell laden over the smell of urine and feces, which may have seeped into cracks between floor tiles or other places.”
10. Surrounded by Stuff
Old things give off the musty odor of age, and the elderly tend to live surrounded by old things, points out Brenda Thompson of Tri-Country Home Nursing. “All those old books and papers, old linens and clothes — they all harbor dust and dampness and give off a musty odor that can pervade the whole house. If you moved into that house in 1945, those books may have been there for 60 years. I’ve seen drapes that have been there that long, too.”