Old-Person Smell

What Causes That "Old-Person Smell"?

We know it when we smell it, though it can be hard to describe, and even harder to talk about. Sometimes we describe it as musty, sometimes as medicinal, sometimes -- sadly -- we just find it vaguely unpleasant. But what causes that "old-person smell"?

"There's absolutely a particular smell we associate with aging, but there isn't one specific cause," says Eric Shapira, a physician and clinical gerontologist in Half Moon Bay, California, and author of A New Wrinkle: What I Learned from People Who Never Acted Their Age (iUniverse, 2009). "It's a combination of many different things that are all associated with what happens to the body as we get older."

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Here are the ten main reasons experts say older people and their homes have that "old-person smell."

1. Closed Quarters

If you've spent time with older adults, you've probably observed that their homes tend to be stuffy; open windows are not a common phenomenon.

"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?

"When our bodies are weaker, we can't clean up after ourselves as well," says Moscowitz. "Some people have the means to pay cleaners to come regularly, but many don't, and they may hesitate to admit to family members that they can't maintain their homes on their own."

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.

Of course, laundry issues related to incontinence are also common, experts say. Sadly, many older adults simply underestimate how much time it takes to get to the bathroom and don't make it on time. And they may not notice a small amount of leakage, which can have a big smell.

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.

In addition, overall mouth hygiene tends to decline because many older adults don't brush their teeth as efficiently as they once did, Geller says. There's even a term for the bad breath caused by gum (periodontal) disease: "perio-breath." Dentures and bridge work -- which are made of acrylic and can begin to retain germs and odors if not replaced after the recommended seven to ten years -- can also lead to hygiene problems. Denture wearers are also more likely to a musty odor that comes from fungal infections of the mouth.

Diabetics can have an additional problem known as "ketone breath," released when acetone compounds are metabolized in the stomach. Digestive issues, such as acid reflux and GERD, which are increasingly common as we age, contribute to bad breath through stomach odors coming up into the mouth.

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.

The problem is that dehydration affects the body's ability to regulate itself in a number of ways. "If you're not drinking enough water, everything becomes more concentrated, and those odors come out through the pores," Shapira says. Dry skin sheds skin cells, which can have a musty odor. Any odors from food, such as garlic or onion, become stronger. Urine becomes concentrated, so even just a drop or two of leakage can have a strong smell. Then, in a chain reaction, being dehydrated contributes to feeling cold all the time, Shapira says, leading in turn to closing windows and overheating the house.

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. "You're probably not getting yourself gussied up for a hot date anymore," says Brenda Avadian, founder of The Caregiver's Voice. "The motivation's just not there like it used to be."

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."

Even so, pride keeps many people from telling family members that they have issues with bathing. "So we have many older people who are just giving themselves sponge baths," Moskowitz explains, "and that's not enough."

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][1]. 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."

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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."

Yet getting older people to give things away is difficult, as many family members have found. "Some of it is that older people have a different sense of time," Thompson says. A box of clothes can sit for weeks or even months waiting to be sorted.

And, of course, all those photo albums, books, linens, and clothes carry memories, so giving things away can be painful. "One day we're going to be older too," Thompson says, "so it's important to understand these changes and be kind and compassionate, as we hope others will be to us."

5 days ago, said...

My dad,s mostly bald head has a very foul odor. He shampoos and scrubs it every other day but the smell never goes away, The dermatologist has no suggestion . Anyone else know what I can do to eliminate the smell?

6 days ago, said...

What kind of bath soap to use to avoid "old people smell"?

6 days ago, said...

I feel deeply humbled after reading this. Our seniors need all of our love and support so that they can grow old in dignity and without fear. Thank you for helping me understand these issues.

30 days ago, said...

My fathers house smells I clean an use plug ins an I can't get rid of the smell. He hasn't bathed in over two months an no matter how much I clean or spray I can't get rid of the smell

about 1 month ago, said...

I am 70 years old I go to two work outs five days a week I know for a fact a lot of the problems associated with seniors is mental start moving and stop saying you are old color your hair wear younger looking clothes I only take one medication and I believe after I lose 20 lbs I won't need it I use to weigh 265 I now weigh 140 this might sound strange but I don't feel old I have tons of energy I don't have any form of arthritis or any that comes with aging if doctors put more emphasis on exercise and eat right if family and friends would treat older family members like anyone else instead of like a 5 year old maybe we could cut down on Medicare bills and hospital stays it begins and ends in your mind

5 months ago, said...

My children always complain about the smell of my apartment but they never offer to help me do things that would help like clean out my refrigerator or wash some blankets my granddaughter vomited on that are to heavy for me to carry to the laundry room on the ground floor from my second story apartment.. My daughter and son know I have vertigo and have fallen and broken my wrist and had to have surgery on it, and had a stress fracture in my foot and two broken toes and wore a cast for almost 3 months.. I've also had two severe concussions and all of this from falling in the past 3 years. Taking a shower is also painful for me and can set off terrible excruciating spasms in my face from trigeminal neuralgia which I have and is severe, disabling, and intractable to treatments. Showering and washing my hair hurts my scalp, the tender area where they removed a piece of my skull when I had brain surgery and my neck which has severe arthritis. I really need a flexible shower head. installed.. But for my piece of mind and safety, it would be nice if one of them stopped by for 20 minutes 3 times a week so I could have a good shower. Sponge baths would do for the in between days. But while I am in the shower they could pull the old food out and take it to the dumpster on their way out. I think my apartment and I would start smelling better.

5 months ago, said...

I know there has to be a professional product to eliminate urine and feces odor from the human body when a person is cofined to bed. Can I help I need this product to get rid of the bad odor when I can not get anyone to help bath my elderly mother. Desperate please help.

6 months ago, said...

I gave my husband a nice shower, washed him and washed his hair. He still smells funny (and not ha ha funny). The smell is not pleasant. His skin is also shedding a lot. What do I do to keep him smelling better and what do I do about his skin?

7 months ago, said...

NEED A SOLUTION PLEASE!!!! Need a gentle but thorough body scrub to remove dirt patches for a 91 elderly parent

7 months ago, said...

PLEASE GIVE A PRODUCT SOLUTION !!!! we have many older people who are just giving themselves sponge and that's not enough.

about 1 year ago, said...

I have an idea on a potential prospect in helping on the old people smell problem. It has been used for ages. You must consult your doctor before taking this and drinks lots of water. You also must take this at a time of day when you are not going to be eating, drinking, or taking medication at any time soon, at least around a five hour period. It can cause constipation, also, so you will want to eat things that promote digestion. The miracle substance is Activated Charcoal capsules. You can take it at night after all your eating and drinking and medicines are way absorbed in your system because if you don't the charcoal will absorb your nutrients and medications, which would be dangerous. But that is the only thing that can be dangerous about charcoal. You can read articles and watch videos about it on you tube. The regular charcoal (except the one's that have lighter fluid already added to them) can also be placed in old pillow cases or socks and stashed around the house and will help absorb odors, as you make sure your house is entirely clean, on a regular basis. Activated Charcoal is wonderful for absorbing internal body odors and can be used for many other things as well. Good health to All.

about 1 year ago, said...

I am 72 years old and my husband is 76 . We live in a condo and I clean it on a regular basis . I bathe every day and my husband does so as well . I wash clothes regularly and never allow clothes to pile up. But still there is a sour kind of smell. Does it have anything to do with body cells which have been shed ?

about 1 year ago, said...


over 1 year ago, said...

I am sorry but I am still laughing. My father is 85 and yes he smells. So we make him take a shower everyday and now he does not,

over 1 year ago, said...

I ALWAYS SMELL IT AT MY CHURCH. WHY. :'| plz church get air freshener plz

over 1 year ago, said...

Have always noticed this distinctive odor on some seniors....from the time I was ten sitting next to someone in a church pew. Funny how the odor is so consistent....so is mouth odor when one has an abscess, consistent unpleasant odor from person to person. Think biofilm, that film on top of stagnant water. It is a dross colony formed on stagnant water. It must be that everything slows down, no perspiration to slough off the drosses. Becoming a caregiver for a 94 year old, I used something to sweeten his system....bowel movements very strong and acrid, and again, typical of older people. I tried Glyco-Thamaline, the mouth wash that had been recommended for so many things, by Cayce in the 30’s, primarily, for alkalizing the system. Several drops in third of a glass of water. I gave it to my 94 year old to say, this will sweeten your stomach. Once a day, marked improvement on Day Three...almost gone. Cayce would advise using it until the stool smelled of the Glyco....means is now sufficient and can be stopped. Wiki 'biofilm'....natural occurring, but totally to be avoided. Like dental plaque....it's a system fail, the plaque gets the upper hand...biofilm. We can do something about it once we stop identifying the problem and do something about the solution.

over 1 year ago, said...

These thnigs will improve if some one takes care of the old people. They need a helping hand in every way.Only childrn and grand children haveto take care of them in a rightful manner with a smile.

over 1 year ago, said...

Sometimes you have to have things spelled out for you before you realize the answer to some questions. This brought some things to the fore front I had not thought of.

over 1 year ago, said...

everything -im a caregiver for my sister with alzheimers and it was difficult to get rid of her things -i got new albums and let her put pictures from old to new brought her new clothes so she would let go of the old smelly things -she and her partner now lives with me where house is clean their linens are new they are changed and washed every week -she had an comfortner that hadnt been washed in ten yrs even after washing a few times it still smelled brought her a pretty one and she let me disgard the old -thanks for the article ---

over 1 year ago, said...

Very Very Very interesting

over 1 year ago, said...

I had only thought of incontinence and lack of baths as culprits. Now i realize there are many other reasons for the 'old people smell'.

over 1 year ago, said...

From my experience, this is completely correct. I am twenty five and lived with my grandmother who is ninety one for about a year after she broke her hip to care for her. She would not bath very often even when I would offer to help her because she was so afraid. She had accidents frequently and her clothes would be stained with urine and feces but she would refuse to change even if I brought her clean fresh clothing and tried to help her because it was still too hard for her to change. She would not allow me to open doors or windows because she would get cold.. It was typically about 80 degrees fahrenheit or warmer in there. She also had many cats who would urinate and defecate all over the house and she would never notice. not all older people smell, in fact neither one of my grandparents who we're in their seventies never smelled. It is due to poor hygiene that anyone of any age in my experience, smells.