Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Older Adults’ Body Odor: Research on Stereotypes Helps Children
Have you heard of "old people smell?" Stereotypes about older adults begin early in life, even as young as three years old. I saw this demonstrated at my school where I was principal. Our students completed pre and post surveys as part of their nursing home visits. We asked them what their expectations were about nursing homes and the residents who lived there. Fourth graders told us they thought residents would be boring, slow, grouchy, and trying to get into their "business."
At the nursing home, many residents made the students laugh and expressed how glad they were to see them. Students discovered that these older adults used to be young just like they were, and they were a lot like most people are. I remember several students being especially surprised to hear a woman in her eighties describe her basketball achievements in high school. Students were amazed at how their stereotypes about older adults changed when they did the same surveys after returning to school from their visits.
What concerns me most about these and other stereotypes about older adults is not only the negative impact they have on the self-esteem of the adults themselves, but also the negative impact they have on children. These negative biases can impact them through the years in ways that are damaging in how they treat older adults, perceive themselves, and in how they perceive aging. These youngsters may grow up to become the negative stereotypes they believe if they are not made aware that many stereotypes about older adults are myths.
With these thoughts in mind, I was encouraged that a common stereotype about older adults having bad body odor now has research to support that this stereotype is false. Many people, including some older adults, believe that a bad “old people smell” similar to mildew, tuna, mothballs, etc. naturally comes with aging. This NPR article published in the PLoS ONE Journal showcases research that not only refutes that theory, but also concludes that many older adults smell better than young people. Old people smell different, not worse.
Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback at many booksellers and in e-book form at Amazon and Barnes and Noble booksellers.