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Awakening the senses to unlock memories

Fragrance in Frames on December 5, 2017. (WLUK/David Duchan)

FOX CROSSING (WLUK) -- This time of year, it's nice to remember holidays past, but for dementia patients, that's not easy to do.

"There are so many treasured memories that end up being locked inside," explained Barb Pandolfo, the executive director of Touchmark, an assisted living facility in Fox Crossing.

To unlock some of those memories, Touchmark has a program called 'Fragrance in Frames.'

It combines art and aroma therapy, which are both recommended by the Alzheimer's association. Residents with memory loss make art projects using paints infused with essential oils.

"We're seeing some pretty amazing results from bringing the two together," Pandolfo told FOX 11 News.

The program is every two weeks and tailored to the season or holiday.

Tuesday residents painted Christmas ornaments while gingerbread was baking. They smelled cranberry and evergreen oils. They touched pine branches.

"It's triggering all the senses of Christmas. We have music playing in the background," explained memory care coordinator Pam Murphy.

The idea is that awakening the senses awakens memory.

A concrete way Touchmark measures its program's success is by having residents write their signatures before and after each session.

"And there are some pretty incredible difference between the starting signature and the ending signature," Pandolfo told FOX 11.

You can see better placement and clearer penmanship in the after signatures.

But, more importantly, caregivers told us, is what the residents say during these sessions.

"They share so much. They open up. I mean, even our more shy people begin to really open up and bubble over and start expressing," said Murphy.

For example, Tuesday one resident talked about cutting down a Christmas tree with her father.

The benefit is that this engagement enhances quality of life.

"Even though you have a dementia diagnosis of some sort, just because you've had a diagnosis, that doesn't mean life ends," Pandolfo told us.

"It's very emotional. They connect. They belong. They're a family. They're unbelievable and this triggers it," Murphy added, with tears in her eyes.

The program started at Touchmark's facility in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was recognized for innovation by the International Council on Active Aging.

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated Touchmark was in Grand Chute, not Fox Crossing. FOX 11 News regrets the error.

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