How to Help the Elderly Bathe (And Maintain Their Dignity)

Occupational Therapist
Updated:

With aging comes the difficulty of doing some tasks independently. So in this article, we will guide you on how to help the elderly bathe while maintaining their dignity.

How to Help the Elderly Bathe
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In many cultures, we are taught from a very young age that bathing is a very private matter, a practice that we should adamantly protect.

As we age, we can take steps to make our bathtubs safer to maintain our dignity and independence. Unfortunately, though, as we age and our health deteriorates, some of us require hands-on assistance to get the job done.

This article will discuss how professionals, caregivers, and loved ones can help the elderly bathe while maintaining their well-established dignity. 

Creating a Safer Bathing Environment While Maintaining Privacy and Dignity

Where is the bathroom?

Let’s start with the actual location of the bathroom. Is it in this person’s house? Is it their own private bathroom? Is it a hospital bathroom? Is it located in a facility? Does the individual have to share this bathroom with another resident(s)?

First, understand if this is a bathroom the elderly individual is accustomed to using or if this is a brand new bathroom environment entirely because this will determine their comfort level.

Does the elderly individual personally feel safe in the bathroom?

Get personal with this elderly person. Ask them straight out, “Do you feel comfortable using this bathroom? If not, is there a way that I can help you change that so you do feel comfortable?”

If you struggle to communicate with them, ask a loved one or someone who knows them a little better to ask them about their bathroom concerns and if they are willing to communicate with you. 

What is the elderly individual’s take on privacy in the bathroom?

Once again, ask them some personal questions. “How important is privacy to you when using the bathroom, including both toileting and bathing tasks.”

For some elderly folks in hospitals or other facility settings, privacy is no longer an issue because every nurse on the planet has seen everything there is to see. For some folks, privacy is extremely meaningful due to shyness or unique cultural practices. 

What can you do to make the bathroom feel safer? 

Once you’ve determined the elderly individual’s needs and concerns about the bathroom, start brainstorming ways to improve the bathroom environment and make it feel safer. This could include any of the following:

  • Double-checking all lock fixtures for privacy sake
  • Check shower curtains and doors to make sure proper coverage is provided
  • Checking and updating all shower and tub grab bars and adaptive equipment
  • Make sure the bathroom is regularly sanitized
  • Ensure they can get in and out of the tub safely
  • Checking to make sure the bathroom is well lit
  • Installing an alert system or alarm in the event there’s a fall or health incident
  • Adding some interior design flare (i.e., a vase of flowers, scented plug-in) to make it feel less utility and more comfortable
how to help the elderly bathe quick tips
Talk to your elderly about the reasons why they refuse to bathe.

Quick Tips to Encourage Elderly People Who Refuse to Bathe

It’s more common than you think. Many elderly folks refuse to bathe regularly, whether it’s due to mental illness or lifestyle choices. This causes problems, especially for people in their immediate surroundings. So what can be done about it?

According to a Harvard study, approximately two-thirds of Americans shower daily, while in China, the majority of the population showers only twice per week.

This discrepancy in showering routines makes you wonder if there are any health repercussions from not bathing for a certain period (Schmerling, 2021).

Some experts state that going too long without bathing results in common skin problems such as pimples and eczema, but rarely severe health issues (Nazario, 2021). 

There are two points to take away from encouraging elderly people who refuse to bathe:

  • It most likely won’t compromise their health.
  • You can’t force them to bathe. All that you can do is give them a slight nudge.

The real issue for elderly people who refuse to bathe is the social consequences due to their overwhelming, unavoidable body odor.

So, if you want to be in the same room as them, here are a few ways to get an elderly loved one to bathe regularly:

  • Talk to them about why they don’t want to bathe. Collect the real reasons first before jumping to conclusions.
  • Discuss ways to alleviate their concerns or fears about bathing.
  • Establish trust, especially if you’re the one stepping in to help them with their bathing routine.
  • Don’t force this issue. You may be simply talking about the idea of bathing for several weeks before you see any success. A longer time frame is common among elderly folks with mental illness.
  • Have an honest discussion about the consequences of not bathing. They may not know that they stink! Address this in a caring manner. 
  • Give them as much freedom as safely possible in selecting the layout of their bath routine. The first time may be just a rinse, and then they may gradually work into scrubbing. 
  • Respect their privacy. Look away when they tell you to. Cover them with towels and only assist with undressing when they are ready. If they prefer to have someone help them who is of the same gender, make that accommodation happen.

Special Advice for People with Dementia

Dementia is a heart-breaking, degenerative disease of the central nervous system that impacts a person’s ability to carry out their activities of daily living safely and independently.

With that in mind, consider how dangerous it can be for an elderly person with dementia to conduct their own bathing routine.

Here are a few ways professionals, caregivers, and family members can assist with their bathing routines and help them maintain their dignity.

Consult With a Professional

This is essential for family members who are new to the challenges of caring for someone with dementia. Talk to a physician, a cognitive specialist, and any rehabilitation specialists who can provide advice about carrying out bathroom routines safely. 

how to help the elderly bathe be ready
Be ready for unexpected bathroom situations when caring for a loved one with dementia.

Be Ready for Anything

This is especially important for individuals with moderate to severe dementia.

A bathroom routine could go very smoothly, and other days you look away for a split second, the bathroom is flooded, and your loved one is fleeing down the hall completely naked. Have your safeties in place and be ready.

Improve Your Bathroom with Safety Equipment

In many cases, elderly individuals need cues from others to use bathroom safety equipment. Have it in place, and be ready to do a lot of pointing. Here are some pieces of equipment that may help prevent falls and injury in the bathroom:

Keep the Routine the Same

Maintain a structure to the transfers, the bath hygiene order, and the drying-off process. It helps to have the same person or people assist with the bath every time, if possible. 

Don’t Force the Bath

If a person with dementia refuses to bathe and can’t verbalize why this usually means that something is wrong and needs to be fixed first. Give them time before proceeding. 

Maintain Their Dignity

Even though their cognition is limited, a person with dementia deserves the same amount of respect as anyone else. Undress them only when necessary, and they’ve permitted you to do so. Cover them in towels as soon as possible.

Respect their cultural practices. Don’t touch them or feel them up unnecessarily. Make sure they feel safe and comfortable the whole time. 

Summary and Final Recommendations

Aging can be very challenging, primarily when we accrue health difficulties that impede our physical and cognitive capacities, making it difficult to function at an independent level.

As professionals, caregivers, and family members, we must ensure our elderly loved ones feel safe and comfortable during vulnerable situations. We may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable when others have to help us with intimate tasks, especially bathing. 

If you are relatively new to assisting an elderly person with bathing tasks, consult with a rehabilitation specialist, CNA, nurse, or occupational therapist for tips on how to help them while maintaining their self-respect and dignity safely.

References:

Shmerling, R. Showering Daily: Is it Necessary? (2021). Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/showering-daily-is-it-necessary-2019062617193

Nazario, B. (2021). How often should you shower? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/shower-how-often

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Meredith Chandler, OTR/L

Meredith has worked as an occupational therapist for 9 years and as a content writer for 6 years. She primarily works with the geriatric population, focusing on their rehabilitative needs and instructing caregivers and family members for home care. Her specialties include ADL training, neurological re-education, functional mobility training, adaptive equipment education, and wheelchair assessment and mobility training. She is a painter, a musician, and a mother of 4 who loves spending time with her family,

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