Why Do Elderly Stop Bathing? 12 Surprising Reasons (& How to Help)

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional
Updated:

While the reasons an elderly person might stop bathing are numerous, most have to do with fear of injury, physical health concerns, or mental health problems. Use this guide to help identify potential causes plus learn some ideas that might help encourage the elderly to bathe.

elderly man bathing
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It is not uncommon at all for elderly people to stop bathing. Usually, it happens gradually as the time between baths increases.

But, there is typically a reason for this. And, your elderly loved one often may not want to share that reason with you out of embarrassment or even fear.

Let’s take a closer look at what these reasons could be. And how you can make the bathtub a safer place for seniors and the elderly.

Why Is Your Elderly Loved One Refusing to Bathe?

The Journal of the American Geriatric Association put together a qualitative study to answer this very question. Here are some of the reasons identified in this study.

1. The Social Pressure To Bathe

There is social pressure to bathe that can come from many sources. For example, family and friends may tell you that you need to take a bath or shower because they think it will make you feel better.

Some elderly people choose to stubbornly refuse this social pressure to take a shower or bath. Often this is due to an underlying mental health concern.

2. Fear Of Drowning

Some seniors may stop bathing because they are afraid of drowning in a tub full of water. Drowning is a legitimate fear, as many seniors live alone and are more likely to experience accidental falls and drownings than any other age group.

Seniors must be aware of their surroundings and take precautions to stay safe before entering a tub full of water.

3. Lack of Interest In Bathing Or Cleanliness Issues

Some elderly people stop bathing or cleaning their bodies because they no longer have the interest or motivation to do so. They may not feel they have a reason to be concerned with their physical appearance due to the death of a spouse or social isolation.

Give them a reason to feel like getting cleaned up with frequent visits or taking them to church or other social events.

4. Difficulty Getting Into and Out Of The Bathtub

Some elderly people may stop bathing because they find getting into and out of the bathtub challenging. Or they feel unsafe when doing so. This fear might be caused by painful arthritis, poor balance, or a lack of mobility.

If this is the case, the elderly person may need help getting into or out of the bathtub. I have some suggested equipment to help with this later in this guide.

5. Geriatric Health Problems

Some elderly people may stop bathing because they fear their health status may cause injuries or a fall. These problems can include falling, getting dementia, and other health complications.

I’ve had some elderly people say they worry about dying in the tub and being found that way by their family. Getting a waterproof medical alert system might help with this fear.

6. Embarrassment Over Body Parts That Change

Some elderly people may stop bathing because they are embarrassed about changes in their bodies.

This embarrassment can be due to age-related skin changes, medical conditions, or simply the natural process of getting older. This reason is problematic, but try to explain that these changes are a regular part of aging and that bathing is necessary. 

elderly woman after bath
Bathing is personal time for older adults, and discussing it will cause embarrassment for some elderly people.

7. Depression or Anxiety Related to Bathing

Some elderly people may stop bathing to avoid feeling depressed or anxious. This is because bathing can be a very stressful experience and can make the elderly person feel overwhelmed. If the elderly person feels overwhelmed during or after bathing, this may lead to depression or anxiety.

8. Unable to Get the Right Temperature

Some elderly people stop bathing because they can’t get the right temperature. They might have trouble using the controls on their bathtub or shower due to frailty, confusion, or arthritis. Evaluate how well they can use their faucets and make changes if necessary. 

9. They Get Exhausted When Bathing

Some elderly people stop bathing because they simply get exhausted from it. Preparing the water, getting in and out of the tub, dressing, and all the other steps are more than they can handle. Showering with a shower chair might be a better option for these folks.

10. They Are Afraid of Getting Wet

Some elderly people stop bathing because they are afraid of getting wet. They fear getting sick or falling on a wet floor. If elderly people cannot bathe due to this fear, they may stop bathing altogether.

Use precautions like bath mats and non-slip bathroom rugs. Turning up the heat before bathing can help this too.

11. Changes in Their Senses

Some elderly people may stop bathing because they no longer have the sense of smell that they once had. They may not honestly be able to notice the increasing body odor that would typically tell them it’s time for a bath.

Establish a personal hygiene schedule with them and help them stick to it. 

12. They Simply Forget About It

Some may simply forget about bathing due to dementia, Alzheimer’s, or even depression. Because of these mental health concerns, they may not remember the last time they bathed or even that it is vital for them to do so.

This also requires establishing a schedule and often involves someone helping prompt them to wash as well. 

senior-in-bathtub-923x6671-1
Make bathtime a pleasant – but safe – experience for older adults

11 Ways to Get an Elderly Person to Bathe

There are a few things that you can do to get an older adult to bathe.

Whichever method you try, make sure you involve them in the decision-making process. Also, be gentle in your language and remember that their bathing habit is a delicate and personal subject for you both.

1. Approach The Issue With Compassion

As discussed above, many reasons the elderly may stop bathing. But, regardless of the reason, it’s essential to approach the issue with compassion and offer your support.

It’s important not to judge them, talk down to them, or think less of them. Instead, offer to help them get back into bathing habits. Be understanding and supportive.

2. Talk to them about the importance of bathing and hygiene

Communicating with elderly people about the importance of bathing and hygiene is essential. Explain to them that bathing is necessary because it helps cleanse the body of dirt, sweat, and bacteria. It helps remove dirt and oil from the skin and also helps keep the skin hydrated so that it is less likely to dry out.

Bathing can even reduce the chance of urinary infections, which can cause serious health problems for the elderly. Additionally, reminding them that hygiene is essential for preventing diseases is important.

3. Make bathing a fun activity for the elderly person

Some elderly people will respond by making bath time an event. While it may sound silly, some dementia or Alzheimer’s patients might even enjoy bath toys or a bubble bath. (Do not use bubble baths with people susceptible to UTIs.) Rub them down with some great smelling body lotion after their bathtime.

This makes bath time fun and enjoyable, like when they were kids. 

4. Get them involved in choosing their bathing products

Elderly people need to be involved in choosing their bathing products.

You should ensure that they are using safe and effective products for their skin and hair types, of course. But, offer them choices in colors and scents within these safe products.

Also, be sure to show them how to use the products properly.

elderly woman shopping for shampoo (1)
Allowing older adults to choose their own bathing products can increase compliance with bathing hygiene.

5. Show them how to take a bath

To help these elderly people take a bath and use the shower, you should show them how to do these things. First, ensure they know how to turn on the water and adjust the temperature safely.

Next, show them how to safely get in and out of the bathtub. Have them demonstrate this for you. This will help you identify if they need help. 

6. Consider showering instead

Showers may be better than baths for a senior. Showers are less complicated and can be done with one hand. They usually take less time and are less tiring. If standing is a concern, look at showering while sitting on a shower chair and using a handheld showerhead.

7. Have needed safety equipment installed.

If your elderly loved one fears bathing for any of the above reasons, get them the safety equipment they need to address the issue.

Common examples of bathroom safety equipment for seniors are:

  • Bathtub Lifts – Bathtub lifts are mechanical chairs that lower a patient into the bath and then raise them out when they are finished. This makes it easier and safer for them to submerge themselves in water and get in and out of the tub. You can see my recommended bathtub lifts here.
  • Bathtub Handles – Bath handles clamp onto the outside tub edge and provide a sturdy handle for people to use when getting in and out of the tub.
  • Shower Chairs – Shower chairs come in various configurations, from stools to full-sized seats, giving seniors a place to sit while using the shower without getting down into the tub. You can see my favorite shower chairs for seniors here.
  • Transfer Benches – Transfer benches are modified shower chairs extending outside the tub. This lets the elder sit on it outside of the tub and scoot over into the tub without worrying about the tub edge. Here are my recommended transfer benches.
  • Grab Bars – Grab bars mount to the walls in and surrounding a shower or tub either permanently with screws or temporarily with suction cups. They provide a stable place to hold onto while getting in and out of the tub.
  • Bath Mats – Bath mats provide a non-slip surface for the tub bottom to reduce the chance of a slip and fall. You can see my recommended bath mats for seniors in this guide.
  • Bath Rugs – Non-slip bathroom rugs are placed outside of the tub to absorb splashed water that could cause a fall. 

8. Discuss bathing with their doctor

Telling their doctor is a bit like sending your elderly loved one to the principal’s office. Have a conversation with the doctor privately before the next appointment. Have the doctor bring up bathing and have them explain the health benefits of baths and personal care in general to your loved one. 

9. Stay with them and help them if they need it

Staying with them while they bathe may help alleviate some of their fears.

And, you can easily stand by without invading their privacy. You could sit just outside the door or provide them with an emergency call button if they need your help. Just knowing someone is close who can help if needed can take away some of the worries.

10. Let them know that taking a bath or shower is an excellent way to relax and de-stress

Discuss with them how a good hot bath can be an excellent way to relax and de-stress. Tell them to add some bubble bath and a scented candle if it is safe!

11. Hire an aide for bathtime help

Many elderly people know they need help but don’t relish the idea of a family member seeing them naked and helping them with their personal care.

Ironically, they may feel more comfortable with strangers than family members. If so, hire a bathtime aide or professional caregiver to help them get clean and comfortable with bathing.

How Often Should the Elderly Bathe?

Most experts generally agree that the elderly should bathe at least twice a week, with sponge baths in between. This is because bathing helps remove dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants that may cause health problems.

It also helps keep skin clean and free from dryness, leading to skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis. This is because the skin of the elderly is thinner and less elastic than younger people’s and requires more frequent hydration to stay healthy.

Conclusion: Why Do the Elderly Stop Bathing?

There are many reasons why the elderly might stop bathing.

The most common causes include a fear of falls or injury, aging health concerns, and mental health issues such as dementia or depression. Regardless of the reason, though. Older adults need to keep their skin clean and healthy, and bathing is an easy way to do that.

Discuss your concerns with your loved one calmly, in an understanding, and supportive way. Listen to their concerns and let them have input on the solution. Use the suggestions above to help improve their bathing habits for their overall health and well-being.

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Assistive Technology Professional

Scott Grant has spent more than 20 years serving seniors and the elderly in the home medical equipment industry. He has worked as a manufacturer's rep for the top medical equipment companies and a custom wheelchair specialist at a durable medical equipment (DME) provider in WV. He is father to 4 beautiful daughters and has three terrific grandkids. When not promoting better living for older adults, he enjoys outdoor activities including hiking and kayaking and early morning runs.

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