Tackling Hygiene: When Seniors Refuse to Bathe

The issue of elders who were once reasonably clean adults refusing to take showers and wear fresh clothes is one that is far more common than most people think. To remedy this often-malodorous situation, it is crucial to first understand why a loved one is not bathing and/or changing their clothes regularly. There are many possible culprits and often several of them combine to form the perfect unhygienic storm. Getting to the root of a senior’s avoidance is the best way to devise a successful strategy for cleaning up their personal care.

Why Seniors Refuse Grooming and Personal Hygiene

Depression

If a loved one who used to wear makeup, bathe regularly, or refuse to don a wrinkled shirt suddenly stops taking care of themselves, it’s wise to rule out depression first. A simple checkup with a doctor is a good idea, especially if low energy seems to be part of this change in behavior or they just don’t seem to be interested in much of anything anymore. Depression isn’t always obvious to an observer, especially in seniors, so be aware of the warning signs of depression to look out for.

Respect and Control

As people age, they lose more and more control over their lives. One thing that seniors tend to keep a tight grip on for as long as possible is their own personal hygiene. Caregivers and family members can nag all they want, but the more you pester them, the more they resist. They may react with a remark like, “This younger generation is trying to take over everything. Well, they aren’t telling me when to shower, that’s for sure!”

Dulling Senses

Your nose may easily pick up on the odors of urine, old sweat and feces, but our elders may not even notice these stomach-turning scents. They are especially “nose blind” to their own smell and that of their home. This is because their senses are not as acute as they once were. With the aging process comes a weakening of the senses, especially one’s sense of smell. Many seniors begin showering and changing less frequently because it is harder for them to notice the tell-tale scent of body odor or the stains on their clothing that indicate it’s time for a wash-up and a load of laundry.

Boredom

Sadly, for many seniors, their days aren’t marked with tons of activities as they were when they were younger. If there isn’t something special about Wednesday, well, it might as well be Tuesday or Thursday. It can be easy to simply lose track of time and not realize how long it’s been since they showered. (This can be compounded by actual memory loss, but more about that in a moment.) Furthermore, if there isn’t company coming over or an outing coming up, then what’s the point of exerting the energy to get all gussied up and just sit around the house?

Fear and Discomfort

The bathroom can be a scary place for many seniors. After all, it is entirely composed of slick, hard and often monochromatic surfaces—the perfect setting for a fall. Taking a shower or a bath was once a regular part of their routine that they didn’t think twice about. But now, this basic act carries significant risks. The possibility of a bruised ego, a broken hip, or even a permanent change in mobility is enough to deter anyone from stepping into the tub.

Discomfort is another very common culprit. Seniors get cold much more easily. They may tire out quickly and lose the sense of balance and range of motion they once had. If someone must help them bathe, there is a loss of dignity involved. Joint pain and lower energy levels can make doing laundry and changing clothes a real hassle.

Cognitive Impairment

Poor personal hygiene is an incredibly common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Getting a resistant elder with all their faculties to bathe is difficult enough, but when dementia is part of the equation, it can seem downright impossible. Conditions that cause cognitive impairment are often accompanied by depression, difficult behavioral changes, sensitivity to stimuli and an inability to keep track of time. When these things combine, it can cause a loved one to refuse to bathe or mistakenly think that they have already bathed for days, weeks or months on end.

Fear and discomfort are often magnified by dementia as well. A loved one may not understand why there is water running on them or become afraid of it. They may hallucinate that the shower drain will suck them down. When it comes to bathing, dementia patients just don’t understand what you are trying to “do to them.” It can be a traumatic experience.

Furthermore, we take daily bathing for granted in this country, but when our elders were growing up, a weekly bath was likely the norm. Your loved one probably adopted more frequent bathing habits as they grew in popularity, but damage to their brain may cause old habits to reemerge. A weekly shower may sound like a godsend for some caregivers, but it’s difficult for dementia patients to actually stick to this schedule when they cannot recall when their last bath day was.


A Caregiver’s Experience with Poor Hygiene Issues

When my mother-in-law was still living independently in her apartment, she began forgetting to bathe and change her clothes. She would look me in the eye and say she had, because she truly believed she had. Some of this was due to her memory issues. She thought she must have taken a bath at some point, so she said she did. However, I believe fear was a contributor as well.

Finding a workable solution to this problem proved difficult. My mother-in-law was an exceptionally modest woman, even for her generation. I knew that she didn’t want a family member helping her take a bath; It was far too intimate. So, we decided to hire a…

This article was sourced from Aging Care.

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