Are you currently caring for an aged parent or loved one who may have Alzheimer's disease?  My good friend, Ruth Sutcliffe Heagney, has launched a smell and memory kit designed to engage your aging loved ones in the recall of memories through the sense of smell.  Introducing the Essential Awakenings Smell and Memory KitCoinciding with “Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month”


Ruth's background is perfectly suited to creating The Essential Awakenings Smell Kit.  After a storied career developing fragrances for multi-national corporations, she left the corporate world and embarked on the entrepreneurial path. 


Much as hearing a beloved song or tasting a dish made from a longtime family recipe can bring back memories, fragrance expert Ruth Sutcliffe has drawn on her 30-year career in that industry to create a kit that can be used by families and senior care providers to help individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia to recall cherished moments in their lives through the sense of smell. Scientific research has found the link between our sense of smell and our ability to recall past experiences to be a strong one and has found that this is the most powerful of our senses. The release of Sutcliffe’s creation – the Premiere Edition of the Essential Awakenings Smell and Memory Kit coincides with “Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month,” and offers millions of individuals a new way to explore this connection.


Researchers have found that “olfactory memory” stimulates significantly more brain activity – primarily in the area known as the “limbic system” -- than memories triggered by visual or auditory stimuli. With this in mind, the simple and basic everyday smells in the Essential Awakenings kit can be used as an aid by families, volunteers and program directors at senior centers – and even by speech pathologists -- to help retrieve smell memories and inspire conversation. Through her work in the fragrance industry, Sutcliffe has seen the way that smell can generate a variety of emotions, and by sharing a “Smell of the Day” on Twitter, she encourages the idea of taking a break from our fast-paced lives to reflect on this under-appreciated yet highly sensitive sensory ability.


Each Essential Awakenings kit contains six individual “smells” – grass, chocolate, mint, pineapple, cinnamon, and jasmine – each which has been found to be extremely effective in evoking memories for almost everyone (from children to senior citizens) who have engaged in this stimulating process. The smells featured in the kit were produced by Firmenich, the world’s largest privately-owned fragrance and flavor company, which has partnered with some of the most widely recognized global brands. (A second edition of the kit, featuring a set of six different smells, will be released soon.)


Sutcliffe has designed the Essential Awakenings kit with the idea of encouraging conversation and providing participants with a chance to engage their memory and imagination. The individual leading each session applies a dab of each smell (grass, etc.) to one of the application blotters provided in the kit, and then passes it to others in the group, and begins by asking them questions designed to elicit qualities and characteristics of that particular smell. (The leader might ask, “Do you think this smell is sweet or sour?”) Then, the leader provides the group with a clue or two, based on information cards that are also included in the kit. (“This grows faster in the summer!”) As those participating in the session narrow in on each particular smell, they are asked to share particular memories that it may bring to mind. (For example, the smell of grass might remind one member of the group of afternoons spent during their teenage years mowing the lawn at home.)


Her frequent volunteer work at senior care centers – Atria in Stamford, The Greens in Greenwich, and the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, north of Manhattan – as well as visits to many other centers has given Sutcliffe the chance to share the Essential Awakenings kit with hundreds of people, and helped her hone in on the best possible product design. She says that on one of these visits, a mission statement or motto for this project occurred to her: “Reaching to memories through the sense of smell.” Working as a volunteer at the Atria senior care center in Stamford, Connecticut gave Sutcliffe the opportunity to see how the smells she shared with residents (including chocolate, popcorn, and lilac) stimulated conversation, engaging even individuals who were usually more quiet and reticent. Some participants gleefully shared the memories they associated with tasty chocolate, and others recalled wonderful afternoons spent gardening and trimming their lilac bushes. The thoughtful planning and meticulous design that resulted in the Essential Awakenings kit was recognized earlier this month by the Women’s Business Development Council of Connecticut, with an award for innovation.

This project is one that is close to Ruth Sutcliffe’s heart, as she has helped care for her mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and she lost her own mother to a dementia-related illness. Having the opportunity to apply all that she learned over the years from her work in the flavor and fragrance industry clearly brings Sutcliffe great joy – and she is excited about introducing the Essential Awakenings kit to a wider audience. 


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