Sarah, my elderly client, was sitting peacefully in the living room with me one evening. I was reading to her while dinner baked in the oven. Suddenly, I smelled something burning and quickly got up to check on dinner. The book had been so engrossing that I forgot about the chicken and veggies and they were burnt on top and smelled pretty unappetizing. I asked Sarah if I should throw the meal away and start again and she said, “It’s just a little brown,” and ate it all up.

That’s when I realized that Sarah’s sense of smell was not what it used to be. I did some research and found out that this is a very common problem for the elderly – about a quarter of men and 11% of women suffer from loss of smell.

I wondered, did it matter? I mean, it’s just smell… But then I read about how smell alerts us to danger such as a gas leak, a fire or spoiled food. If you can’t smell, you can miss important signals.

I also found out that loss of smell can be a symptom of other health problems. It can be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis. It can also be a symptom of obesity, diabetes, hypertension or malnutrition. It may cause a person to lose their appetite (since we enjoy our food through smell as well as taste) and impact proper nutrition.

Luckily, Sarah wasn’t living alone and she had me to watch out for her. I became extra vigilant about paying attention to smells, so if there was a smell of gas, fire or anything else off, I would notice it before she did. I started using stronger spices to give extra smell and taste to Sarah’s meals, so she was able to continue to enjoy her food. I let her family know that she needed to have her sense of smell checked at doctor’s appointments, and that the physician should keep his eye out for related diseases.

I was thrilled to find out that in this case, the loss of Sarah’s sense of smell didn’t indicate any other problems. I continued to care for her and enjoy her friendship for a number of years, and I just kept adding more paprika to my dishes!