Caring Currents

Why We Dread the "Ucky" Side of Elder Care

Last updated: Mar 17, 2009

What's the difference between handling your baby's diaper rash and your parent's bedsores? Or between Junior's spit-up and Grandpa's drool? Sorry for introducing a not-fit-for-the-dinner-table conversation here. But it's another of those under-discussed dark sides of caring for aging parents or other elders that so many of us nevertheless confront: Having a difficult emotional time with the "ucky" personal-care side of the business.

"I draw the line at smearing foot cream between atrophying toes," an otherwise-selfless, giving caregiver told me the other day. She's deft with medications and cleaning where the commode was missed, but she insists her husband apply her father-in-law's toe cream.

She's not alone at drawing lines at -- or silently dreading, or even panicking over "“ certain aspects of personal care. Common biggies include bathing, hair washing, incontinence, ostomy bags, bedsores and other skin problems, and those dismaying feet.

So here are a few explanations for those perfectly understandable reactions "“ and some ideas to help you along.

Uckiness cause #1: General squeamishness There's one direct link between how plenty of new parents feel about projectile vomiting and diaper blow-outs and how some adult children or spouses feel about certain personal care issues. Things that involve bodily fluids or other unattractive sights are just naturally unpleasant to a great many human beings.

What helps: Practice. If a first encounter causes an unexpectedly strong response in you, know that the feeling does tend to soften some over time the more deft you get at a particular chore or the more often you see it.

Uckiness cause #2: It's Mom! (Or Dad!)

Unlike the oblivious baby having his diaper changed, a parent knows exactly what you're doing. And you know, too. That can make both of you uncomfortable. Your parent may hate to need help and you may hate the idea that he or she needs help.

What helps: Remembering that your parent will always be your parent, but right now he or she also happens to be an individual who needs your help. For many people levity is the grease that gets the job done. Cracking jokes defuses the tension in the air that both sides are probably feeling.

Uckiness cause #3: Heebie-jeebies about privacy This one is kind of a corollary to #2. Adults are accustomed to privacy, and sharing normally-intimate business can conjure up a lot of discomfort.

What helps: Respect the person's privacy as best you can. Take care of personal needs in a private area or, in a small house, keep others out of the room. Provide a robe and place strategic towels during bathing. Certain parts of personal care simply can't be completely private, but you can give the elder the respect of being as discreet as is feasible.

Uckiness cause #4: Thinking, Hey, I'm not a nurse

There's a certain technical element to personal care. This, I think, was the biggest bugaboo for me when my mother was ill. At first, I simply didn't know what to do. (I scored really, really low on the "nurse" portion of those high-school career-interest surveys. Meanwhile I scored really high in only two areas, "writing" and "outdoors." Since I'm not a forest ranger, here I am.) I tried to pay attention to the visiting nurse's instructions but mostly felt a deep inadequacy.

What helps: Brush up on the basics of how to handle specific situations like bathing an elder, bathing someone with dementia, changing [adult diapers] (, and so on.

Another option: If there are more than one of you, divide duties among those who feel best suited to handle them, if you can. I was Mom's chosen child (for some reason) to clean her dentures; maybe this is what helped me dive easily into this task. On the other hand, the adult diapers, the dry shampooing, the bed changing, et. al., I left to siblings who felt more comfortable with it.

Outsourcing particular tasks, such as biweekly bathing, to a nursing aide is another possibility, if you can afford it.

Ultimately, personal care is as personal to you as to the elder you love. It's not easy, only necessary.

Are there tasks you dislike "“ and if so, what helps you get through it?