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Senses dim with aging

Something is charring on the stove, but I’m the last to know. The smoke alarm is the first to know and gets my attention — hey, I’m not deaf! If I’d been more visually alert, I’d have noticed that my dog long ago fled to the balcony and hid her nose in her paws. But I didn’t smell anything burning. This puzzling scenario occurs a few times a year at my house.

I’m mad at my nose. Actually, I’m mad at all my five senses. Since I passed the half-century mark, I’ve been increasingly aware that they are not working the way they did when I was a brand-new human: that is, from 0 to 20 years old. Touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision have declined somewhat — did I wear out my senses using them too enthusiastically?

I recall my deep delight in the smell of the yellow rose bush at the corner of my childhood home; my sister’s Chantilly perfume (to match her French Provincial bedroom furniture) and, more to my taste, the Jungle Gardenia my mother wore and that clung to all the lovely dresses in her closet.

Maybe I smelled too much over the years: The warm, soft heads of dozens of babies who made my acquaintance; the foods my best friend Carol and I loved to cook and eat (Rice Krispies treats, brownies, toasted cheese sandwiches), and all the other luscious smells that were so definitive and evocative when I was younger.

True, I was a smoker for 20 years, so maybe I ruined my smeller that way. I no longer feel I am getting the true, rich smells I once did. Lipsticks, even, used to have distinctly different fragrances. No more.

What else has changed? The other day I was getting fingerprinted for a job with children and the fresh-faced young deputy couldn’t get a good set of prints.

“Hey,” she announced cheerfully, “The bad news is you have the fingertips of a 90-year-old woodworker, but the good news is you could commit a crime and get away with it!”

Great — maybe I also wore out my sense of touch. Darn! Now I’m afraid that kittens don’t feel as silky as they did when I was a child and we seemed to have a batch every spring.

As for sight, I have to admit mine was never great. I started wearing glasses when I was 10, which was miserable, of course. I had one teacher who complained I was constantly pushing them up the bridge of my nose. Thanks, ma’am, for drawing attention to me, Miss Four-Eyes. Has that nickname become obsolete in the era of contact lenses? All I know is, the eyesight chart at my optometrist’s looks more and more like a Rorschach blot to me.

Trick: If you memorize the letters with your glasses on, you can still ace this test. Only my doctor has caught on that I’m cheating and pulls out an alternate chart — what a spoilsport.

I used to be nearsighted, but now I’m one of the bifocal-ed — meaning I can’t see anything. Perhaps I wore out my eyes, as my mother warned, reading too much. I read “Little Women” alone four times. I’m certainly lucky to live when audiobooks have become ubiquitous.

When it comes to the sense of taste, I’m proud to say I’ve been tireless in my scientific research to determine if my taste acuity has declined since I was 9 years old. As part of this endeavor I’ve sampled slippery black licorice, crunchy Butterfinger bars, still-frozen Sara Lee cherry cheesecake and numerous other childhood treats. They all seem to be as delicious as ever, but who knows? I have to continue my study. I can report that animal crackers are bland, but I think that is their fault and not that of my taste buds.

Aging allows us to experience many interesting changes in our senses. We may find out there’s been a decline in bemusing ways. I’ve read somewhere that as men age they lose the higher registers and women, ironically, lose the lower range of sounds. Perhaps this accounts for why my husband and I often don’t hear the other and end up thinking, “Stop mumbling, for heaven’s sake!” I hope my hearing holds out for years to come. I could live without totally acute hearing, of course, and maybe it would even be a relief not to be aurally assaulted by leaf-blowers, or people talking loudly on their smartphones in public places, or other less-than-lovely noises.

Hurray for the five senses, even if mine are a little worn.

Valerie Ilustre is a member of Jottings at Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.



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