Malnutrition is a widespread symptom of dementia–one that often flies under the radar. Studies in the U.K. have shown that up to 45% of dementia patients lose significant weight after their diagnosis, and up to 50% don’t eat enough food. Ode, a new device from the British design firm Rodd, releases familiar food scents three times a day, around mealtimes, to encourage people with dementia to eat and stay healthy. Think of it as a fragrance alarm clock.
How the project came about: Two years ago, Rodd joined forces with a government program called Living Well With Dementia. The program put out a call to designers who felt they could help people with dementia through design thinking. Linking up with fragrance expert Lizzie Olstrom, designers from Rodd began working on Ode, in hopes that they could help design a simple, intuitive solution to address malnutrition.
There are a few reasons for dramatic weight loss and malnutrition in dementia sufferers. First, a dementia diagnosis (which can include at least 15 neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s) often leads to depression, says Rodd’s Managing Director and Ode’s co-founder Ben Davies. “Early on, you’re not feeling great. You’re feeling depressed and confused. The last thing you want to do is concentrate on your diet,” he tells Co.Design. That puts a strain on already overloaded care workers, whether in homes or at residential care facilities. What’s more, at the latter, dementia sufferers are often disconnected from the process of making food. “The caregivers do not have much time,” Davies says. “People become really removed from high-quality, appetizing food.”
Why attempt to trigger patients’ appetite through scent? While some loss of smell is an early symptom of some neurological diseases, it remains the only sense whose receptors attach directly to the limbic system, which controls emotional responses. That’s why a smell is linked so inextricably to memory. Davies and his colleagues were inspired by research on using fragrances to stimulate reminiscence for patients in care facilities. Over a 20-week design period they made a functioning prototype of Ode.
One problem: How do you personalize the device? Not everyone will be lured to the dinner table by the same food smells. “Imagine you’re a vegetarian sitting in a room pumped full of the smell of bacon,” Davies says. “We always wanted it to be as personal, simple, unthreatening, humble and elegantly designed as possible.” With help from Olstrom, the designers created bespoke fragrances that are as similar to real food smells as possible. These are currently divided into three “menus,” of three scents each, including traditional English comfort foods like cherry tart and braised beef casserole. Three fragrances are easily inserted by a caretaker into the device, lasting three months. Any fragrances Ode comes up with in the future will be able to fit into this system, so the range of possible fragrances is potentially limitless.
Another problem: How do you ensure dementia patients can smell the fragrances for more than just a few minutes? Our brain tunes out new smells after about four minutes, and some patients have mobility issues. To address this, Ode is programmed to release its fragrances in waves by heating up the fragrance, then activating a fan that both blows it out into the air and simultaneously cools the bottle so it’s returned to its original state before being heated again. This way, each “alarm” goes off in waves for at least three hours–so if someone wants to eat at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., the scent continues to stimulate his or her appetite.
The results Ode has produced are promising, the designers say. “The test work we’ve done indicated that about 50% of the people who use it either stabilized their weight or gained weight. That’s incredibly rare,” Davies says. He emphasizes that Ode is not intended as a medical device, but as a way to augment the other treatments that dementia sufferers receive. Other benefits of the product are more nebulous, like that it can provoke conversations between caregivers and patients around memories and thoughts–something rare and vital for people who tend to be extremely isolated.
Of course, not all people with dementia can smell. And the illnesses that fall under the umbrella of dementia are complex; no one device will solve a problem like weight loss. What’s more, the devices cost about $420 for a starter kit including three months worth of fragrances, while a year-long fragrance subscription comes to $540. These prices might be a hard sell for care facilities that are already strapped for cash.
Nevertheless, as the world’s population ages, dementia is putting a significant strain on families and on the economy at large. Products like Ode aren’t a silver bullet, but they prove that innovative thinking is more necessary than ever to improve quality of life for a group of people who are often mistreated and ignored.