Did you know that washing an elderly person’s hair doesn’t have to be an awful experience for both parties?
In fact, loved ones can make it the highlight of their week with the right steps, attentive care, and acknowledgment of their needs. And their shower is setup for them to use safely.
This article discusses tips on how seniors can successfully wash their hair alone and how caregivers can effectively assist them.
I’ll also advise you on how caregivers can help manage seniors’ privacy while encouraging independence and how to wash hair safely and pain-free.
Finally, I’ll offer effective alternatives to washing hair in the shower or bathtub.
How to Wash Your Hair Alone
In reality, elderly people only really need to wash their hair 1 or 2 times per week. Their skin has changed over the years and does not produce the same level of oils as it once did. Additionally, overwashing their hair subjects their scalp to more dryness, irritation, and dandruff.
Elderly individuals who still have the full range of their arms and shoulders may still be able to perform their hair care with little difficulty. For others, it’s an entirely different story.
Here are a few ways elderly persons with limited range, stamina, and coordination in their upper extremities can still wash their hair without help:
Instead of bringing your arms up to your head, bring your head to your arms. Tip your neck in multiple directions to get your hair washed. Range your neck slowly and carefully to prevent muscle strain and dizziness. Try this from a sitting position to avoid loss of balance or falls.
Long-Handled Head Scrubbers
Use a gentle long-handled hair scrubber to wash and scrub your hair and scalp without having to reach overhead too far.
Look into using a long-handled showerhead that you can bring to your scalp without reaching overhead too far. This is great for people with limited shoulder range.
Portable Shampoo Bowl
If you’d rather wash your hair separately from your regular shower routine, consider using a portable shower bowl that prevents water from getting your body wet. You can rinse and soap your hair and even tip the bowl to your desired angle.
How Caregivers Can Help
In some cases, elderly people attempting to wash their hair independently is a real challenge due to cognitive impairments or serious physical limitations. Examples include:
- Rheumatoid or osteoarthritis
- Reverse total shoulder replacement
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Paralysis of the arms
- Muscle atrophy of the arms
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Traumatic brain injury
- Resting tremors of the hands (i.e., Parkinson’s disease)
- Neuropathy of the arms
Family members and caregivers can help wash elderly people’s hair by paying close attention to their responses, preferences, and needs while making the experience as pleasant as possible. Here are a few tips:
- Use high-quality detangler oil for longer hair before washing.
- Always use gentle hands. There’s no need for intense scrubbing on aging skin and thinning hair.
- Offer a gentle scalp massage during the hair wash.
- Use pleasant-smelling soaps and conditioners that are easy to rinse and don’t sting the eyes.
- Since elderly folks don’t need their hair washed very often, offer to wash their hair separately from their regular shower routine to keep them dressed and warm.
- Acknowledge when you don’t know what you’re doing or when you are making them uncomfortable. This means you may have to call in reinforcements by recruiting another caregiver or hiring a professional.
- Set a routine and schedule that the elderly person is comfortable with. This is especially important for people with cognitive impairments who have a history of refusals. Let them know they have control over their hair hygiene routine.
How to Manage Privacy and Encourage Independence
As mentioned previously, there’s no reason for hair hygiene to always coincide with regular showers or baths. Seniors can control their haircare time and wash their hair while fully dressed.
If a senior needs some help with set-up, a caregiver can get them situated with all of the right washing tools and allow them their “me” time.
For seniors who require a serious amount of assistance for hygiene tasks, it’s still just as essential to allow them privacy and to keep their dignity intact.
Ask them how and when they would like their hair washed. If they would like it taken care of in the shower, approach the task delicately and talk it through with them during the whole process to ensure they are comfortable.
If they would like it done outside of the shower, let them dress accordingly with towels draped to prevent drippage.
If you get even the slightest inkling that a senior is uncomfortable with the current hair care process or that they are uncomfortable with you, ask them about it and make immediate changes.
General Tips for Washing Hair Safely
Here are a few ways family members and caregivers can safely wash seniors’ hair and keep the experience pain-free:
- Avoid over-straining their neck. Never pull or unnecessarily comb or unknot the hair while it’s wet.
- Do not scrub the scalp and hair with your nails. Use the pads of your fingers for increased comfort.
- Avoid running water over the face for a lengthy period of time. When someone else is in charge of the water flow, this feels more like an interrogation tactic rather than an enjoyable hygiene experience.
- Avoid getting soap in the eyes, the mouth, or nasal cannula if the senior is wearing supplemental oxygen.
- Remove all finger jewelry to avoid scratching their head and skin. This is EXTREMELY important for elderly people who are on blood thinners.
- Use warm water for both prepping and rinsing purposes.
- Track any skin abnormalities on the scalp and, with the senior’s permission, report them to the primary physician if they look new or concerning.
Alternatives to Washing Hair in the Shower
If a senior is bedridden, behavioral, or severely limited in any way that hinders their capacity for regular hair care, alternatives are available. This includes:
These are a quick solution that doesn’t require water. However, with repeat use, the chemicals build up, making the hair feel thick and grimy.
Bedside Rinse Trays
Trays are bowls you can use to rinse someone’s hair who needs to have it completed lying down.
Portable Shampoo Bowls
You can use portable bowls in a reclined position but also be rolled up to a wheelchair and angled to meet the person’s needs outside of a traditional shower or bathtub.
Trimming or Shaving Hair
Some elderly folks resort to shaving or trimming their hair to avoid regular hair washing. Although convenient, some folks miss their hair, which becomes a sad point in their hygiene care.
How Often Should Older Adults Wash Their Hair?
In general, there is no “one size fits all” recommendation for how often adult men and women of any age should wash their hair.
The average person can usually get away with shampooing their hair 2-3 days per week and be just fine. Individuals, such as seniors, with more delicate or thinner hair could shampoo their hair only once per week.
During our younger years, the scalp produces an oily substance called sebum that works its way down through the hair. As we age, sebum production decreases, and the scalp becomes drier.
Since most of us wash our hair to get rid of the oil, seniors have less reason to worry about it as much. In fact, over-shampooing fine and non-oily hair can make the hair dry and brittle.
So, rule of thumb. If your hair tends to be on the more oily side, then you may be washing it more often throughout the week.
Alternatives to Traditional Hair Washing
For some seniors, traditional hair washing can be tricky for numerous reasons, including:
- Reduced stamina and strength in the arms
- Decreased range of motion in the shoulders
- Poor finger dexterity and fine motor coordination
- Poor circulation and sensation through the arms and hands
- Poor core strength to sit up for hair washing in the shower or tub
- Reduced cognition or awareness of personal hygiene
Fortunately, there are alternatives to popular hair washing techniques so seniors can still get the job done as independently as possible. Here are a few methods:
- No-rinse shampoos: Rub a cleaning solution through your hair without the hassle of washing it. Leave-in cleaners are helpful for seniors with extreme weakness or who are bedridden.
- Sprays: Sprays also help eliminate the need for the physical exertion involved in traditional showers and hair-washing tasks.
- Hair-washing in the sink: There’s no need to climb into the shower or undress if you have the joint range to lean over and wash your hair in the sink.
- Hand-held shower heads: Bring the water to you for more control in the shower.
- Portable hair-washing basins: Bring the water basin to you, in or outside the bathroom. Basins allow hair-washing in a reclined position without needing to get undressed.
Ways to Keep Hair “Fresh” Between Washings
If you are worried about keeping your hair smelling good or looking kempt between washes, here are a few ways to keep up the routine between washings:
- Invest in a hair-smoothing, fragrant hairspray
- Keep up on regular rinses without shampoos
- Use a wet, gently comb or brush to keep the hair untangled
- Massage your scalp with a soft scalp massager or baby brush
- Keep long hair up in a loose ponytail or bun during physical activity
- If you struggle with tangled hair, consider incorporating detangler oil into your hair care routine.
The important thing is to keep your hair healthy and detangled. A little dirt or oil does not harm your hair or overall health.
Summary and Final Recommendations
Don’t stress about washing your hair daily as an older adult. You should wash your hair less since the oils in your scalp significantly decrease production.
If you are a senior with health issues that impede your ability to use traditional hair washing techniques, consider the alternatives to find one that fits your preferences and needs.
If you have complex hair needs (curly, frazzled, tangled), consult a licensed stylist for additional advice about properly caring for your hair and keeping your locks healthy and strong.
Summary and Final Recommendations
A senior does not have to shower every day, nor does hair have to be washed daily, especially for elderly folks. Hair washing is a unique experience for each elderly person and should be treated as such by all involved family members and caregivers.
Hair care does not have to be intimidating or painful, and there are numerous ways to adapt to each elderly person’s unique circumstance.
Seniors should be allowed to exercise control and independence as much as possible in their hair care routine.
Although many health conditions limit upper extremity range and cognitive capacity, there are ways for caregivers to help elderly people fully participate and enjoy their hair-washing experience safely.
- Gumaer, D. (2019). Hair washing for elderly adults. Griswold Home Care. https://www.griswoldhomecare.com/blog/2019/december/hair-washing-for-elderly-adults/
- Birch, J. (2022). How often should I shampoo my hair? Radiance by WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/features/how-often-wash-hair