When Hygiene is an Issue: Helping Your Aging Parent Stay Clean

The last time you dropped by your mom’s house in Kansas City, did you notice an unpleasant odor? And finally realize it was coming from her? Unfortunately, elderly people don’t always bathe as often as they should. There are a number of reasons why. For example, changing clothes can be difficult. Or there could be a fear of falling in the tub. Or they may just not remember they didn’t do it. Here are some things you can do to help if your mom (or dad) has stopped bathing.

  • Open a dialogue. Your mom might not realize she has body odor if you don’t tell her. Or she may need help getting in and out of the shower and be embarrassed to ask. If she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia, see if she’ll tell you why she’s not bathing.
  • Fix potential barriers. Ask if there are safety issues you can address as a caregiver (e.g., a shower chair, grab bars, mats, a walk-in tub or shower). If your mom has dementia, address safety issues anyway.
  • Try a direct approach. If your mom has ignored your hints to get clean, try a more straightforward approach. For example, say, “Hey, Mom. Here are some wash cloths and clean clothes. It’s time for you to take a bath.” Or “…I’m going to help you take a bath.” If she continues to refuse, don’t force her. Instead, see if she’ll just do her face and hands, then try again later.
  • Be prepared to assist. Although it may be uncomfortable, you may have to do at least some of the washing yourself if you can’t get your mom to do it (or if she’s not able).
  • Choose a method that’s comfortable. Does your mom usually take showers, tub baths, or sponge baths? Stick with what works best for her. My mom was used to sponge bathing, so we initially approached her with wash cloths, soap, and a basin full of water.
  • Prepare everything in advance (e.g., bath water, wash cloths, towels, wash basin, soap, shampoo, clean clothes). You don’t want to waste time once she’s agreed to bathe.
  • Be creative. My mom had Alzheimer’s. The first time we approached her to try and give her a sponge bath, she initially refused. So my sister said, “Now, Mom. I’m going to tell you what you’d tell me if I didn’t want to take a bath. You don’t want to go around smelling like a pole cat!” For those who are wondering, a pole cat is similar to a skunk. And my mom did used to say that. As my sister was talking, she began to wash Mom’s face. Her pole cat remark made Mom laugh, and she let us finish.
  • Preserve modesty. If your mom’s embarrassed to have you help bathe her, let her wear a towel. And ask her if she wants to wash her own privates if she’s able. Or just stand by outside the door to help if that’s all she needs.
  • Let her do as much as possible on her own. Even if your mom has dementia, she may remember how to wash herself if you hand her a wash cloth and tell her what you want her to do with it. My mom was always big on brushing her teeth, so a simple reminder was all it took to get her to do it.

It’s not easy providing elder care at home, especially when it comes to the battle over bathing. Just keep trying and your patience may just pay off. And if all else fails, you can always call in some home care experts to help.