Puppies are born blind. They know the world through their nose – they smell their way around. They root out the teat for precious milk, they follow the scent of their littermates, they sniff the ground to follow their mother’s footsteps and find her warm, fuzzy skin for safe refuge. From there, they expand their interactions with the world by tasting, hearing and seeing. They listen and watch.
Sensory and perception is an entire field of science dedicated to how we sense and perceive the world around us. It is no surprise that we are like other animals, in that we develop our senses over time. We, too, are born virtually helpless. We use our senses to learn and grown. We code memories based on what we smell, see, hear, taste, and touch.
I recently read an article about the FDA now approving some over-the-counter hearing aids. And I thought “finally”! The idea of valuing, preserving and aiding our aging senses is gaining more attention. There are hundreds of solutions for mobility issues. Charron Medical specializes in helping aging people stay in their homes, specifically by addressing mobility issues with stair lifts, seat lift chairs, wheelchairs, and rollators. The industry is regularly providing new features and products to help us move from room to room, floor to floor, and in and out of our cars. Aging and wellness depend on maintaining your social connections and your community, which depends on your mobility.
But what about our aging senses? Isn’t that an important part of how we interact with our community and our world? Hearing aids are one example of how we need to place more emphasis on developing affordable products to help us access our precious senses as we age. You can expect some disagreement about procuring traditional hearing aids from your doctor versus purchasing a one-size-fits-all, OTC set. We can wade through that argument. What matters is that access to hearing amplifiers and hearing aids is now broadened.
I applaud the inventors and manufacturers who are offering Personal Hearing Devices (PHD). For example, the BOSE Hearphones are a PHD which some doctors think can help people with mild to moderate hearing loss. How can we listen and understand what our loved ones are saying to us, if we can’t even hear the words? Have you ever been out to dinner with your family, and missed the conversation because you couldn’t block out the background noise? Or have you been with someone like my own father, who is constantly asking you to speak up in a restaurant? These OTC hearing devices might be just the thing to help in those very public environments.
I would like to put in a plug for other senses too. Eyesight has been well addressed, and most of us have worn corrective lenses for decades. We have readers (aka “cheaters”) that we can purchase OTC, to help magnify the smaller things we encounter daily. Hearing devices are obviously more complicated than a pair of reading glasses, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them equally accessible. We have other senses too: touch, taste, feeling, and smell.
The sense of smell is often undervalued. I think it should be elevated – even celebrated – as we age. And here is why. Have you ever had a memory, particularly visceral emotional memories, come flooding back at the scent of a flower? Does the smell of a home-baked lasagna instantly elicit your grandmother’s kitchen? The sense of smell is unique as it relates to memory. According to a 2015 article in Psychology Today:
“A number of behavioral studies have demonstrated that smells trigger more vivid emotional memories and are better at inducing that feeling of “being brought back in time” than images.”
The olfactory bulb, where smells are received inside your nasal membranes, has a direct line to your memory centers. That means that when you smell something memorable, it gets encoded directly into your memory without the filters of your frontal lobe. This makes it so much simpler and easier to recall that special memory. All you need is to recreate the scent.
- A whiff of Bowling green cologne and I can instantly recall my grandfather and his warm smile
- The smell of rain puddles on a dirt road, and I can feel the stroller in my hands as I push my newborn daughter
- Bus exhaust fumes and sweet curry, brings me back to London in 1990, where I was a student
A few years ago I started on nasal spray for persistent seasonal allergies. After two weeks I noticed that my sense of smell was dulling. I immediately stopped the spray. I found something else, because I would rather have a runny nose than not be able to smell warm brownies or fresh laundry. I am not the only one who has gone through this type of experience – temporary loss of smell.
What can the DME industry do to help us preserve and enhance our aging senses? The over-the-counter hearing amplifiers are a good beginning for our sense of hearing. For our sense of smell, the innovative Scent Guru Group has developed a scent kit to jog memories. It is called Essential Awakening. I would like to see this concept enter the mainstream for wellness and therapy.
There is the nagging numbing of fingers and feet as we lose our sense of touch. It causes us to grow clumsy and unsure when we step on the ground; MIT has an entire Age Lab, dedicated to studying the way we age. They have developed an empathy tool – AGNES – to simulate some of the effects of aging on our bodies and our ability to complete daily tasks. Maybe MIT can develop a technology for our skin and our nerves to enhance our touch. In the meantime, we need to be sure we have solid footing from good-fitting shoes. Fortunately, there are many styles to choose from. A fit for every foot.
We come into this world hard-wired with extraordinary senses to perceive our environment and the people we live with. Our senses are the tools we use to learn and grow and thrive. They are the key to attention and memory and human interaction. They are the antidote to isolation and frustration and misunderstanding. How wonderful it would be, if we could rely on these sensory gifts to embrace our aging selves.