Caring Currents

Bathing Blocks: When an Elder Refuses to Bathe

Last updated: Jul 28, 2008

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I’ve had a slew of questions lately from 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 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.