What Causes That "Old-Person Smell" and What to Do About It

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Why do some people smell so bad? Many frail older adults, in particular, often seem to have a distinctly unpleasant body odor. Actually, it's a myth that there's a distinct "odor of aging," according to the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Instead, it's a host of conditions that create scents that comingle.

It's helpful to know what some of these odors are, so you can work on addressing them:


Alternative: Ask the doctor if there are other drugs to try, or if certain foods should be eliminated while taking the drug.

Topical ointments (Bengay, VapoRub, old Vaseline, etc.)

Alternative: Ask the pharmacy about better-smelling choices that do the same job. For example, some people dip into a jar of petroleum jelly over and over for their lips, not realizing when it begins to smell rancid. Smaller-sized lip balms with fruity scents may be an easy fix.

Mothballs from clothes

Alternative: Try using lavender or cedar blocks.

Tooth decay

Alternative: Keep up with dental appointments, and provide mouthwash.

Incontinence residue on clothes or skin

Alternative: Make sure the person changes and washes frequently.

Unwashed skin (especially between folds)

Alternative: Try keeping containers of diaper wipes around the house; they serve as an instant disposable washcloth for quick cleanups.

Dirty dentures, hearing aids, or other devices

Alternative: Be sure you understand how all these are to be properly cleaned, and do so regularly.

A closed room without much air circulating

Alternative: Keep windows open a crack, at least part of the day. Use odor-eating room deodorizers (not just room sprays that temporarily mask odors).

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio