Bathing Blocks: When an Elder Refuses to Bathe


Last updated: July 28, 2008
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I’ve had a slew of questions lately from Caring.com readers asking what to do when their elderly loved ones refuse to bathe, shower, or clean their bodies in any way. Talk about a major stressor. This is one. And it’s all too common. To all those out there in this situation -- you aren’t alone. A few things really can make a difference.

Understanding helps. There are all kinds of sensible reasons why older people don’t want to bathe. These include:

  • Fear of falling
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Not strong enough to get in or out of the tub on their own, but don’t want to admit it
  • Water too cold or too hot; temperature never feels right
  • Annoyed or scared by the sound or feel of water; common with people with Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Depression, a kind of passive giving up on life

Try to narrow down what’s going on with your parents. See if any of these solutions make a difference:

  • Adapt your parents’ bathroom to minimize fall risks and make bathing easier. These bathroom safety tips for stroke patients apply to any older person who needs help bathing.
  • Talk to a pharmacist about your parents’ medications to see is something could be causing lightheadedness or dizziness and adjust as needed.
  • A shower or tub chair allows bathing without standing. Sold in medical supply stores, as well as online.
  • A transfer bench attaches to the edge of the bathtub, letting your parent pivot in without standing. Some benches double as bathing chairs. Sold in medical supply stores and online.
  • Adjust the water temperature for your parents; as people age it’s common to lose the ability to judge water temperature.
  • A shower or tub hose that allows for a gentle, quiet flow of water at directed places. Sold at most drug stores, medical supply stores, and online.
  • Look for signs of depression. If your parents seem generally unmotivated and down, bring this concern to their doctor.
  • For more, check this response from a Caring.com expert geriatric nurse practicioner, these articles on bathing your mom or your dad, and these tips for bathing comfort.

One more major tip! Bathing is extremely intimate. Many people feel far more comfortable dealing with it with a professional home caregiver than a family member. If nothing else seems to work, consider hiring someone to bathe your parents, even if this is the only job they have.

Image from Flickr user Amanda Leigh Panda used under a Creative Commons attribution license.

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4 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

Anonymous said about 2 years ago

I have had the pleasure of working with those having Alzheimer's (I just love them so much) & found several things to help me with their showers. The use of a calender in the bedroom or bathroom & have them watch you mark the day they had the shower, of course they will not remember later, but I was usually able to coax them into another shower after showing them the calender. Some of the elderly as mentioned have a problem with who is giving the shower. Sometimes I found a man would actually rather have a male take care of him because he feels embarrassed being around a female, & of course vise versa. They might have been o.k. with it at one time, but their Alzheimer's can change that. As with anything you would like them to do, it can be how you present it to them & sometimes giving them a choice can help (I know this will not work for all). Ask if they would like their shower (eat meals, etc.) now or in a half hour. If you plan right & know of a favorite show, looking at pictures, or whatever they enjoy... then you can say we can take the shower (eat, etc.) now, so you can watch your show in half an hour, take that walk, listen to music, sing, etc. Hope this was helpful & do not forget prayer (for them & yourself), they enjoy that too!


about 3 years ago

Very appropriate for me today. I was thinking about posting this question because I am having an extremely diffiuclt time getting my husband to take a shower. I don't have him shower daily but I do want him to shower a few times a week. But this is a major battle. I don't see any of the suggestions that might apply. He just doesn't remember when he last showered and doesn't want to do it....PERIOD! Sometimes he also has me in tears. This is the most diffiuclt of the issues I have in caring for him. I am wondering if anyone has any additional suggestions. He is usually very pleasant most of the time. I just think that his bodily cleanliness is very important since is in continent in both areas. I don't want any infections to occur.


over 5 years ago

Great article Kate, I work on two elder care blogs and bathing is always a hot issue for us. A big danger issue that we see is shower doors. They are not strong enough to support the weight of an adult and are often relied upon dangerously. Check out the more here: http://www.rightathome.net/seniorhomecare/?p=155. One of the best tips that we have seen work is to give the elder bathing the most power possible. Let them pick the bathing time and shampoo and soap. This seems to help them feel more comfortable. If you are interested, check out more on our Senior Home Care Blog: http://www.rightathome.net/seniorhomecare. Best, Bill


Anonymous said about 6 years ago

My Grandmother has Alzheimer's and has gotten to the stage of needing help bathing. Luckily, my mother has a nice big shower, which makes it helpful. But, it is still a process, it takes a long time and is difficult. One thing we like to do for Grandma a few times a week is wash her hair. Even if we don't have time for a shower, having clean hair makes her feel better about herself. We have found a great product on an <a href="http://www.enablemart.com/">assistive technology website</a>. It is called the <a href="http://www.enablemart.com/Catalog/Bathing-Aids/">Comfort Hair Wash Basin</a>, and it works beautifully when doing my Grandmother's hair. On thing to remember, especially for a woman. Having your hair look good, will make you feel better all day long. I hope this helps a few families.


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