The Transporter: The Scent of an Old Folks’ Home

Over here on The Daily Post, today’s prompt is: Tell us about a sensation — a taste, a smell, a piece of music — that transports you back to childhood.

Sense of Smell, Emotion and the BrainWhen I was a kid, almost every summer I went to Disney World.

And… I’ve just lost half the readers here. But if you’re still with me, here’s why: I liked  theme parks and fantasy, and the main part of the trip was visiting my uncle who lived in Florida and seeing my grandmother in the last few years of her life. That’s where the smell kicks in: the smell of getting old.

Mom knew that it probably wouldn’t resonate with me to be visiting grandma in a home – I was so young I didn’t have any memories of her outside of the home, or before her 2 strokes. So mom arranged for trips to Disney World to go along with it. We weren’t rich, so I know this was a big sacrifice – and trust me, we lived up those tickets to the fullest extent. We were there for the rope dropping at 6AM and stayed till midnight (back before they had the special 9pm-midnight tickets).

The clearest thing I really remember about those trips was the scent of that home where my grandmother and some other old people lived. My family never called these places “elderly living” or “assisted living” – we called them “Old Folks Homes” which some how felt, well, homier. It was a lot like the smell of Mrs. Owen’s house where I went to a neighborhood “daycare” place as a tiny child, and the smell is about the only thing I can remember clearly.

Because I’m a big fan of brain science, I’ve learned a little bit about smell and memory, and here’s one of the coolest things I’ve learned: smell, like taste, is routed near the limbic brain, as opposed to the other senses routed through the cerebral cortex. The limbic system is the emotional center of the brain, so it makes sense that the two senses routed in/near/through it (I’m not quite a neurosurgeon) would have an emotional, rather than logical, response.

I’m glad that the smell gives me  memory – but it’s a memory of smiling through sadness. It’s watching my mother’s face the moment her brother told her her mom had died. It’s wondering if my big sister was sick because she was in the bathroom so long – only after  seeing pictures did I realize she’d been crying. It’s fearing the touch of all these old people I didn’t know – I’d asked mom why they stared at me and she said that they were probably just glad to see someone with young skin like mine. I’m sure she didn’t say it as creepily as I remember it, but there it is.

I wonder if I’ll be able to detect it when my body starts making that same smell as I age. Will it mean the same thing then? Probably not – but I wonder.


Want to know more? Here are some thought-provoking thoughts along the same thought. If you have ideas to share on the subject, please link me in the comments!

BBC Science: Nostalgic smells

Scientific American: Scents and Senescence: “Old Person Smell” Is Real, but Not Necessarily Offensive

One thought on “The Transporter: The Scent of an Old Folks’ Home

  1. Pingback: We’ll Never Smell That Way Again | The Jittery Goat

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