caregivers bathing dementiaOne of the most common questions posed to eldercare specialists is “Do you have any tips that will help make bathing my spouse (or parent, or client) easier?” The person with the question isn’t asking how to make bathing a pleasant experience. They just want to know how to get it done without a power struggle or inflicting discomfort on their loved one. As caregivers, our job is to turn what can be an emotionally and/or physically uncomfortable event, into one that is both successful and positive.

On the forum, author Carol Bradley Bursack writes in Bathing Tips and Techniques for Dementia Caregivers, that it’s important for caregivers to understand why an elder may be reluctant to bathe. The person may feel a loss of control or a fear of falling. They may feel vulnerable, exposed, and embarrassed, or they may simply hate feeling wet and cold. Plus, as people age, their senses dull, including their sense of smell. While we easily notice the unpleasant odors of an unbathed body, our elders may not. As a result, many seniors begin showering and changing clothes less frequently. As for individuals with dementia, they may refuse because they think they just bathed, or they may not understand what you are trying to “do to them.” Ms. Bursack writes, “Understanding the underlying causes can help caregivers better navigate these issues and help their loved ones stay as clean, healthy and comfortable as possible.”

The author first challenges us with the question, “how often should seniors bathe?” She reminds us that culturally there are different definitions of what constitutes cleanliness and writes, “many seniors who are now in their 80s and 90s grew up with weekly baths, often because they lived out on remote farms and water was too precious to waste.” In other words, if a senior does not shower every day, “it’s unlikely that their health will suffer.” The exception is the senior with skin issues or incontinence. But even then, bathing the entire body daily is not a daily necessity. Giving a sponge bath or using adult size wipes or no-rinse personal care products can take care of troublesome areas that tend to get dirty, smelly or irritated.

There are benefits to frequent baths beyond cleanliness. With the client’s or loved one’s clothing off, the caregiver can take a careful look at the aging skin. By routinely checking for bruising, peeling, tearing, persistent itching, dry skin, pressure ulcers or bed sores, infection or irritation can be prevented and/or treated.

The Aging article offers the following suggestions to help make bath time a better experience for both the caregiver and the elder:

Offer an incentive. If your loved one/client enjoys going to church or out to eat, say “Let’s both get cleaned up and then we’ll go to out.” Taking the focus off bathing and putting it on the outcome may help motivate them.

Make the process as physically comfortable as possible. Seniors often feel cold. Prepare the bathroom beforehand so that it is warm and pleasant. Try putting the bath towels through the clothes dryer to warm them up and test the water before the senior enters the room. Cover the mirrors for those individuals who are easily startled or embarrassed.

Choose bath time wisely. When the person is most cooperative is the best time for a bath. Seniors with dementia may experience “Sundowner’s Syndrome” which leads to agitation and typically occurs in the late afternoon when sunlight begins to fade This is not the time for a bath!

Prioritize safety. If the senior is able to shower, grab bars should be used for extra stability. A shower chair allows the senior to rest as needed and a hand-held shower head allows the senior or caregiver to carefully direct the water stream and keep water from going into the person’s face.

Communicate. Whether you are assisting in the shower or giving a sponge bath, it’s important to announce each step before you do it. By describing each move in a low, soothing voice the elderly person is more likely to remain calm and cooperative.

Respect the senior’s modesty. The person may be more comfortable if you keep a robe or a towel draped over their body and only briefly uncover one area at a time for cleaning. This helps them stay warmer and feel less exposed.

Try some pampering. Try telling your loved one or client that they spent their lives doing for others, and now it is time for them to sit back and be pampered. Try referring to bath days as “spa days.” By using a nicely scented bath wash and offering a hand or foot massage after the bath, you can help them focus on how good they feel after bathing rather than on the process itself.

There is nothing glamorous about growing old and needing help in the shower. But with a little imagination, a sense of humor and a large dose of respect, caregivers can help the process go more smoothly and enjoyably. Maybe you’ll even end up singing in the shower (or bathroom) together!

photo credit: marcoverch Fläschchen mit Schaumbad und verschiedenen Lotions im grauen Korb via photopin (license)