A Step-by-Step Guide to Shampooing an Older Adult's Hair

Four ways to wash someone's hair

It sounds easy enough: After all, everyone knows how to shampoo their own hair. But washing someone else's hair -- especially that of an older adult who's sick or frail and may be your parent or another relative -- isn't always a simple task.

Hiring a home healthcare provider to assist you (or at least show you some tips) can be a big help. When it comes to where to shampoo, you have four basic options: Sitting in a tub or shower, sitting at the sink, standing in a shower, or lying in bed.

Sitting in a tub or shower

The easiest way to shampoo someone's hair is to have him sit in the bathtub or on a bathing chair in a shower stall. If he already sits for bathing , it makes sense to wash his hair at the same time. Have plenty of clean, dry towels on hand to keep him warm.

Use a plastic cup or a rubber shower hose (available at medical supply and drug stores) to direct the water to his hair and scalp and away from his face. Lots of people are sensitive to the feel of water on their face, but it can be especially irritating to anyone who is unhealthy or has dementia, including Alzheimer's.

Sitting at the sink

If he doesn't want to have his hair washed in the tub, try a shampoo at the bathroom or kitchen sink. You can either have him face the sink and lean his head forward or have him sit facing away from the sink and lean his head back, just as they do at salons. Rinse with a cup or a small sink hose, sold at medical supply stores. In either position, he can keep his clothes on for warmth and comfort.

Leaning back is a good position for keeping his face dry. Cushion his neck well with towels or a waterproof pillow. You could also try using a special washing tray, sold at medical supply stores.

Standing in the shower

If the person you're caring for still showers on his own, make sure he's stable enough to shampoo his hair at the same time. Shampooing while standing requires good balance. If you think this may be iffy for him, offer to help by passing him supplies.

If he needs to hold on to railings or grips when he showers, he may not be able to shampoo safely without your help. You'll need to strike a balance between allowing him as much independence as possible and keeping him safe.

The person you're caring for may find a bath chair to be a perfect compromise. Once people with balance difficulties try a bath chair, they're often convinced because it feels so secure.

Lying in bed

If the person you're caring for is on bed rest and can't sit or stand for bathing, you can try having him lean his head over the side of the bed a little bit. Use a basin underneath and rinse with a cup.

Even better, home healthcare and medical supply stores sell inflatable basins just for bed-bath shampooing. Check online for basins and other bathing accessories.

The equipment you'll need to wash someone's hair, and how often to do it

Before you get started, make sure you have everything you'll need close at hand so you won't have to stop mid-shampoo, leaving him wet and dripping as you rummage around for conditioner or another towel. The more comfortable you can make him about the process, the better.

Useful supplies

A small plastic basket with a handle, available at most drug and household goods stores, makes a perfect bathtime carry-all.

Shampooing essentials include shampoo, conditioner, a brush or wide-toothed comb, and a stack of clean, dry towels in various sizes.

Use a small towel to cover his face if he's sensitive to water. You'll need larger towels to dry him off as soon as you're done, so he wo n't get chilled. If he's in the tub or shower, you may want to cover his lap and shoulders with large towels for privacy and warmth while you're shampooing.

A plastic cup will help you wet his hair without getting much water on his face (of course, some drips are inevitable). A bath hose works in the same way, although some people find a hose cumbersome for shampooing. Try both and see which you -- and he -- prefer.

The basic shampoo

Once you have the setup in place and your supplies are ready, the rest is pretty straightforward. Squeeze out shampoo, lather it in, and rinse it out.

Shampoo can dry out the hair and scalp, so use just enough to get a lather. Baby shampoos are gentle on the eyes and skin, and rinse out easily.

Even if the small print on the shampoo bottle recommends lathering up twice, it's usually unnecessary. In most cases, one washing should do the trick. If his hair hasn't been cleaned in a long time, you may want to shampoo again.

It's important to rinse out all the suds. Use your hands to feel for stubborn pockets of shampoo that tend to hide in hair.

How often to wash

The idea that hair needs to be washed frequently is more about social custom than medical need. In deciding how often to wash an older adult's hair, first go with his preference. If a shampoo every day or two makes him feel good, this is an excellent reason to stick with tradition.

Otherwise, pay attention to the condition of his hair, including how it smells, and shampoo his hair whenever it seems dirty. If you see scalp irritation, a rash, or persistent dandruff, he should see a doctor.

If he's particularly sensitive to water or resistant to shampooing, wash his hair less often -- once every week or even every two weeks. As long as you're keeping the rest of his body clean, less frequent shampooing is fine. Brush or comb daily to help keep his hair attractive and well groomed.

Kate Rauch

Kate Rauch has spent more than two decades writing about health for websites and print media, including WebMD, Drugstore, the Washington Post health section, and Newsday, as well as HMOs such as Kaiser Permanente (in the San Francisco Bay Area) and Group Health (in Seattle). See full bio