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OLFACTORIUM. The olfactory gym for Alzheimer patients

27 August 2019 — 3 minutes read

My name is Anna Barbara (Barbara is my surname) and I am a researcher and teacher for the Interior Design Laurea (equivalent to Bachelor of Science) study programme. For more than twenty years I have worked on investigating the engagement of time and senses in designing places. By senses I mean not design’s purpose but the tool for a more articulated form of design and a more immersive and profound experience within spaces; and time as it is involved in all its forms, making it more and more likely that we are, in fact, becoming designers of times’ forms rather than of those of spaces.

One subject I have been exploring over the past few years in particular is the relationship between smell and spaces, that is, the connection that lies between olfactory perception and the emotions it is capable of evoking from a person’s memory.


The olfactory gym for those affected by Alzheimer’s at the Paese Ritrovato in Monza

The Paese Ritrovato is a small village that has just opened its gates in Monza to house patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so as to give them the opportunity to carry out a great deal of actions in a very important state of independence, albeit under constant monitoring, up until they come close to having to be confined to their beds. Within this “community” we have designed an Olfactorium, a gym in where residents can train their sense of smell inside the Paese RItrovato, dedicated to those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The olfactory system is the first to be compromised by the disease, yet it is also a system the exercise of which appears to slow down the disease’s progress. Someone suffering from Alzheimer’s does not lose their sense of smell, they instead lose their ability to recognise smells. For this reason we believe olfactory exercises should be practiced regardless of the identification of the smells themselves. The Olfactorium’s mission is to help practice perceiving smells in order to create new connections and meanings that may or may not have any link to residents’ memories. The project is aimed at the first two stages of the disease and provides tools and places in which to practice the sense of smell.
We (whit Francesca Ripamonti) created an olfactory kit which acts as a sort of “message in a bottle” for each patient’s future self for when they no longer remember, selecting and associating smells they enjoyed to images. We (whit Mikio Imai) also designed a hugging pillow, Nancy’s touch, which contains 4 aromatic families. It acts as a transitional item for those moments throughout the day in which patients tend to isolate themselves, the shape of which is deliberately unisex as to be used comfortably by both men and women. Within the Village we then created an actual gym in which to practice smelling which is focused on the second phase of the disease, when the patient has moved to the Paese Ritrovato and the connection between smell and memory is definitively compromised. The olfactory stimuli remain a form of wellbeing and entertainment, producing emotional responses in patients. The Olfactorium provides:

  • Shelves of Worlds: a large set of shelves where one can archive numerous small object and aromas, so that patients may associate olfactory experiences with memories and descriptions. The experience here is analogue.
  • A Lab-top: a digital whiteboard providing an aromas/images interaction. In this case, the experience is digital.
  • A Hanging Garden: this is the fulcrum of the room and of the sensory experience, where the patient is surrounded by soft aromatic satchels. These elements can be touched, embraced and sniffed, stimulating moments of fun and relaxation.

The project was realised in partnership with and for the Cooperativa La Meridiana, and with the photographer Francesca Ripamonti.

The Politecnico

The Politecnico took part in this project, along with other Departments and authorities, not only with regards to the olfactory gym but also in terms of décor, interaction design, electronics, etc. This confirms the Politecnico as a leading player in advanced research in Spatial Design as well and in the design of places and tools that have the potential to spearhead not just technological but spatial and experiential innovation.

Why do research?

Through this study the chance emerged, for more design-related disciplines, to carry out applied research, translating the theoretical side regarding the senses into the tangible spaces of design. Furthermore, another barrier was demolished concerning the sense of smell, making it clear that odours should not be studied solely by perfumers, and that it should be an issue for interior and product design as well, paving the way towards a new era we could define as that of Scent-design. My collaboration with the School of Design started in fact with an Olfactory Design course which could move forward consolidating this area of research and teaching to become the first Design University in world to preside over this subject.