Old-Person Smell

What Causes That "Old-Person Smell"?
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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."

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

about 3 hours, said...

I attend a lot of yard and estate sales and always wondered why the homes smelled like that. Thanks for an enlightening article. It’s made me take another look at us and our home.

9 months, said...

Try Arcadia lures persimmon soap. Our product is the cheapest on the market and has more persimmon in it than the leading brand. To remove "old person smell" naturally and efficiently. Check us out at arcadiapure.com

11 months, said...

Useful products Personal Non Bio Zoflora concentrate disinfectant Hibiscrub antiseptic on prescription Nappy rash creams on prescription Tea Tree Oil concentrate Tisserand Tree oil shampoo antiseptic and antifungal Tisserand Skin Wash antiseptic and antifungal Caneston ointments and spray, antifungals Tena lady mini extra long 100% Cotton underwear, clothes and bedsheets Microfiber cloths in bulk Vileda Mops with detachable heads that can be put in washing machine Flash all purpose gel Henry, Harry Hoover as unsteady to clean, and put in fresh bags even before full otherwise pumps out bad smells. Large bed sized incontinence pads, e.g. DriNites 100% cheap cotton throws which fit in washing machine regularly, replaced often No plug in air fresheners, or shark n vac, as these can cause breathing difficulties. Clos-o-mat shower toilet with built in dryer

11 months, said...

I have slight urine incontinence, bowel problems and often get infections (bacterial and fungal) and due to lack of saliva and medication, would get unpleasant breath if not careful. But I am only 52 with a keen sense of smell so keep everything in check. I also have 2 rescue dogs often fostering greyhounds who have accidents. This is what I do to keep clean: Shower regularly in tea tree, occasionally weak hibiscrub. I make sure to wash hair each time as unwashed hair stinks. Exfoliate with net puff. Dry off body with a hairdryer to prevent fungal infections,and put antifungal, antiseptic, baby nappy rash cream on all folds/crevices. I dont use talc which can get musty. Use deodorant with tea tree. I use bicarbonate toothpaste first, then do 2nd brush with fluoride toothbrush and rinse until clean. Mouthwash with Biotene a moisturiser for dry mouth. Dry mouth particles Artificial Saliva spray I have a shower toilet. If I leak on a pad, it goes straight into a dog poop or nappy bag, tied off and put in main rubbish outside. If I leak on pants, they're binned. And thoroughly shower bottom half and dry with dryer on shower toilet. If you are struggling with reaching to wipe or other, occupational therapists can get a grant to fit a shower toilet for you, otherwise they're a couple of thousands £. In my area, the council give grants toils families too if on council properties to meet their cultural toilet needs. I also use neat bio washing powder on any dog accidents and follow it with zoflora. I use those bed incontinence pads to soak up things but they're about 50p a sheet. With clothes, I never put any back in the wardrobe if worn, even for a few hours. And I wash things that don't smell fresh. I also use lavender bags and herb sachets in all closets and drawers. I change my bedding every 7 days, regularly wash mattress and pillow protectors too. I wash nets and curtains. I get a cleaner weekly if I can, £16 per week. I cover furniture with throws and theyre washed weekly and sofas wiped, beds wiped with leather cleaners. That keeps dog stink down. We brush loose hair, dander off dogs outside on walks with metal scraper kept in the car. Basically, you can't mask a smell but you can eradicate it. Zoflora is a concentrated antiseptic with nicer odour. Flash multipurpose gel with breeze scent is good. Lastly, we clear up after food. Throw old stuff away. And we open windows and air our house a lot. I air my wardrobe regularly and empty and clean too. And the protectors we use on the bed are waterproof but washable with a comfy cotton top. From M and S. All bedding is 100% cotton and white or light. I wear 100% cotton underwear only, changing pants about 3 times per day. I avoid synthetic clothes as they absorb bad smells. I am not elderly but I am similarly infirm, and I need a lot of help. Not being clean makes me depressed. I think elderly people do know wjen their environment stinks, but have to lower their own standards to match what is physically possible. The days my home help comes I feel quite down but when she has finished my mood is lifted and I can relax and read a book. After a clean I can breathe a lot better too. Stands to reason that older people shed more skin and so have more dust. I have very little money but I sacrifice other things to get a home help in. However, people who have more money than I are often complaining they can't afford the luxury of a cleaner, but they underestimate the value of having a clean house It's invaluable.

about 1 year, said...

My job is making me sick. I cant seem to get it through my clients family that his house smells..I dont want to be rude.but it stinks urine feces musty body odor soiled depends.mold... How can i get it through their thick heads ? They think by buying all kinds of cleaners it will cover it up..

over 1 year, said...

I am so happy to find this article and even more happy to read people's responses and suggestions. My Mom and Dad are in their 80s and still insist on living at their home by themselves. They are active in volunteer work, but can't get around as easily as they used to. About 6 months ago, when visiting I noticed a smelliness to their home that had not previously been there. I know my Mom would not like her home smelling that way ... and it also gets onto their clothing so that you smell it when they are outside their home, too. I love my parents and want to help them. These are a few things that I did to help: 1) I ordered gain deodorant trash bags for them to use for their depends and other pads that are used for leakage. There is one of these bags in each bathroom and they just have add their items to the bag and pull the drawstring until the next item has to be added. 2.) I hung "clean linen" car fresheners from each door handle in the home (including the inside door handle on the bathroom. I hung the fresheners on the inside hanger, so you can't see them looking down the hall. 3) I placed two of those automatic spritzers (one in the hallway, near their bedroom and one in the living room. 4) I sprayed a lavender fabreeze on all of their carpeting. 5) I placed little cotton bags (home made, but you could purchase some) filled with baking soda in places throughout the home. All of these things together worked fine for about two months. I then needed to refresh all items (air fresheners, spritzers, fabreeze) and the pleasant air was there again. One additional thing I did was to rub my father and mothers feet with lavender oil. I do this every time I see them and I believe it helps.

over 1 year, said...

Your metabolism slows down and you sweat foul gases through your skin pores more profusely, you have to eat your meat last.

over 1 year, said...

At the hospital they gave me Aloe Vesta Perinneal Care cleaner. You just apray it on and don't even have to wipe it off and it neutralizes urine. Also works underarms or whole

over 1 year, said...

I wash my 94 year old father under arms & private parts with tea tree oil face wash, , it neutralizes the odor, hair with warm, wet towels then massage his wet hair with little apple cider vinegar it's amazing. internally I feed him kale, broccoli & give him Swanson Chlorella its mineral & chlorophil content eliminates all odors. My father is bed ridden but smells beautiful. I give skin rubs with warm wet towels & plain water in addition to pedicure & manicure, His doctor & nurses tell me that he's the cleanest patient they have seen in years. Don't forget evacuations are vital for the body to clean itself lots of liquids & fiber from fruit & vegetables. CLEAN EATING DOES A BODY GOOD. I like to cook & use food as medicine I have helped him get rid of arthritis, high blood pressure, weak immune system, he lives drug free. I'm bless to have my father who's loved & well taken care of, but he's bless to have me who do an excellent job. my father was an honest, hard working, responsible MAN, he deserves what he's receiving from me.

almost 2 years, said...

if you research soap --u will find that its base ingrediate is animal fat.. some people body grow a hormone that react with that and it increases the odor.. it does not clean the body --it feeds the odor..--- dont use soaps---use other products

almost 2 years, said...

Thanks a lot

almost 2 years, said...

this is a great topic to really talk about. hygiene reason for this is my dad who is in his 80s wearing a urine bag due to prostate cancer. now his urine is very strong - fishy smell like gas bombs ( kids stink bombs ) when he empties his bag thing is it's what you call nose blind he can't smell it on himself but his son can.. also on his trousers it smells of urine bad smell. so when his son asks him to change his clothers that's when it becomes a problem his dad's mood swings bad temper but that same smell is also in the house now that's because he has heating on full blast doors closed no oxygen or fresh air going around so it becomes a smelly house.............. like an old people's rest home so I know where this conservation is heading it's true with old people they can't smell themselves and they just want to not get a bath or shower. ?

almost 2 years, said...

@smelly head you have to get Alberto VO5 Herbal Escapes Clarifying Shampoo, Kiwi Lime Squeeze, 12.5 Fl Oz the shampoo is green, smells delicious and gets rid of that greasy, sticky, stinky odor. needs to shampoo twice each time. Opens up clogged pours and gets rid of that odor. Hope this helps. Oh, this shampoo is carried by Walmart and Dollar Tree in Georgia. I love it for body wash too. mimiodella from Acworth Georgia

about 2 years, 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?

about 2 years, said...

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

about 2 years, 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.

about 2 years, 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 2 years, 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

over 2 years, 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.