How can I deal with my mother, who has Alzheimer's, and her fear of water?

16 answers | Last updated: Nov 14, 2016
Snow asked...

In regard to bathing and daily care. Is it common for A people to think that they cannot get wet? My Mom says she cannot get her back wet or her feet. She used to color her hair and perm it and now she says that if she gets her hair wet something will grow on her back. I do NOT believe I will be able to get anywhere with this task. So, if she ends up in a home or assisted care how do THEY manage this. Expecially since she has refused to let any help come to the house?


Expert Answers

As Founder and Director of Circles of Care, Ann Cason provides caregiving, consulting, and training services to individuals and public and private organizations involved in eldercare. She is the author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders.

Thank you for this question. Fear of water is very common. So is fear of being told what to do. Fear of water on the back is often an expression of feeling helpless.


Have you ever gone to the hair dresser and had water accidentally run down your back? You feel it on your neck. Then it feels as if something is growing on your back. You can't reach it. It feels cold and clammy. It is so much trouble to change your sweater or blouse. You have no control over your own body. This fear is not easy to work with, but here are some suggestions for family caregivers.


For awhile think this: My mother is my teacher. She is going to teach me how to be old and feeling out of control.


• Approach your mother with an attitude of gratitude and appreciation. Make a list of some of the things your mother taught you such as how to perm your hair, how to make a cup of tea, how to tuck in your blouse, how to apply lipstick. Think of simple and ordinary things. Continually thank her for all that she did.


• Try to stop thinking that your mother is dirty and needs to take a bath and that you are responsible. Stop thinking of her as a crazy and demented old woman who won't let anyone help her.


• Think this: I love my mother. I can’t fix her.


• Instead take her out to lunch. Take her for a manicure. Take her to buy a new lipstick. Take her for a drive or a walk through the mall or a park. Bring her a nice scarf. Will she let you put it on for her? Show her in a mirror, full length if possible, how pretty it looks.


• Bring a close friend of yours to see your dear mother. If your mother will let you, serve tea and cookies on her best dishes. Or serve soft drinks in tall glasses. Tell your mother how much you want your friend to know her. Are there any grand babies or children that you could bring to see your mother? If so, let her give them candy.


• If this does not perk her up, find an experienced professional caregiver. Introduce her to your mother several times. You will need to pay the caregiver for her time both for being introduced and also for coaxing your mother into a bath. Find a caregiver who is both kind and strong willed. Send her to your mother. See if she can succeed where you, the beloved daughter, have not.


• Develop patience. The fear of water is a stage that often passes. When a person feels the need, she will finally consent to some form of a bath, even if it is standing in front of the sink to wash. I once had to wash a difficult older woman. She told me, "It's good to be clean." I took that as consent. After I had finished bathing and dressing her, she folded her hands to pray, "O Lord in heaven, only you know how the mind of this woman works. Please protect me from her." I handed her a lipstick, combed her hair, and walked her to the full length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. She smiled at her reflection, ate her lunch, and had a nice day.
 


Community Answers

Grannylove2 answered...

My mom went through this and still dos to an extent. My dad solved it by taking a bath with her. He put a tub stool in with them so she could sit down while he bathed and then he sat on it while he bathed her. She fought him tooth and nail sometimes but he would constantly tell her she smelled and if she wanted to go (she loved going - anywhere) say to church she had to get cleaned up. He played to her sense of embarressment and what her mama had taught her when she was growing up. She sure can be a pill when you wanted her to do something she didn't want to do.


Jpreaves answered...

I know how water can be fearful to an AD person. My Mother died from AD and she used to tell me, I don't want people washing my skin off. A Nurse would bath her carefully with a wash cloth.

But now I am faced with my wife having Alzheimer's and here is a woman 62 years old who used to be a good swimmer and now doesn't want anything to do with water....not on her face or anywhere. she constantly complains of being cold in even hot water. I usually give her a sit down bath in the tub every Sunday evening. She wears Depends and I constantly change them. She isn't incontenent but doesn't wipe herself....and I am careful to keep her clean. I have thought of getting some moist wipes from the Drug Store in an effort to keep her clean. I think we can work with this situation if we are keeping our nose to smell body order. When that occurs it's time to wash with soap.

I could not bring myself to bath my Mother, and I even find it difficult to bath my wife......but I do it....like a dutiful caregiver. I have just assumed that all AD patients don't like being bathed.


Glendaree answered...

I had to deal with my mom being afraid of water. She would scream horribly if she went near a tub. She went into the hospital for a few days and they gave her a sponge bath and she tolerated it well. Now two years later I faithfully sponge bath her daily. I get a bath sponge and soap it with body wash and clean her good. This also helps to see if there are red mark or something that needs attention quicker. She still complains but I just start talking and she forgets what I am doing. I have learned to always take her mind away from the task. I talk about anything else besides what I am doing. She can only concentrate on one thing a time.Now she to she expects me to wash her. Sometimes she says don't forget this part or that part, we laugh. I try to make it fun. My suggestion don't concentrate on it being water. As for washing her hair their is dry shampoo at the walmart or walgreen stores.


Grannylove2 answered...

jpreaves, wipes are a great idea to use with AD patients. Just be careful when you choose which wipes you want to use. Some of them are not flushable. You would have to put them in the garbage. We used Kandoos - they are flushable. You can find them in the baby section of the grocery store.


Seekersusie answered...

To Granny love2:

Reading your experience about your father getting in the bath with his wife to get her bathed, pained me. He was forcing her...fighting her to get her to do what he wants. Probably a pattern in their relationship; certainly not a loving response. Especially using shame and her sense of embarrassement of smelling bad. I am glad you wrote of this type of treatment...perhaps you will read more here and find another way, which would treat your Mother with respect.


Annevincent answered...

My mom has Alzheimer's and her case is very progressed........she is 78. For the first few years, we were able to bathe her...no problem and now, although she is not afraid of water, her legs are too shaky to get into the tub or shower. A stool does not work because she has a very hard time getting up....even from a chair. The only way that I can bathe her is to sit her on her potty chair and wash her with a warm bath cloth with anitbacterial soap (I use liquid dial). I wash her top first from waist up and after I have her clean, hair brushed, deodorant on and lotion and baby powder, I have her stand up and wash her bottom (front and back), and the rest of her. I do wash her feet while she is seated on the potty chair and put on clean socks. It works really good for us and since I have started washing her bottom with the antibacterial soap and bath cloth, she has stopped having the frequent urinary tract infections that she had while we used wipes. She wets her depends at night only and stays dry during the day. I think we have a good system....my mom is almost 6 feet tall and a large (not fat) woman. I, on the other hand, am very small, so this works really good for us. It is easy to get her on the potty chair first thing when she wakes, because she needs to go to the bathroom, so it works great!! So far, so good!! And...good luck to you as well!! I know that many people are very judgemental about the fact that our loved ones are not actually "bathed" in a shower or tub, but this works really great for us and she is very clean and in the scheme of things.......it does not matter!!! God Bless!!!


Grannylove2 answered...

Susieseeker, None of us were "forcing" her to our will. It is our job to take care of our loved ones and part of that is to see that they stay healthy. My mom has extremely sensitive skin and has to stay clean or she develops horrible sores. I see that you have worked in so-called "Care" facilities for over 30 years? Hope you took better care of your patients than the one my mom was in about 2 years ago. In reading your bio, I see you just worked with some facilities but do not have any actual experience with the caregiving of a loved one with Alzheimer's just the caregiving of cancer patients. Cancer patients are so different from Alzheimer's patients because at least Cancer patients still have their minds, for the most part. The nice thing about your job is that you could go home away from the Alzheimer's situations. In less than a week after she arrived there, they had let her get so gaulded that she was bleeding from her bottom end. If she goes for very long without a bath, she starts "digging" and then proceeds to spread it everywhere. Would you like to get a drug-resistant case of e-Coli UTI?

No, this was NOT a "pattern" in their relationship. Theirs was one that many people have commented on - how wonderful they were together, how much they were obviously in love, how they would go walking together in the evening for exercise and one or the other always reached out so they could hold hands. Manys the time, they took baths together when I was younger and he wasn't "forcing" her then. I take them with my husband. If you are married, I do recommend it. Mom lost the ability to reason - in case you weren't aware, a lot of Alzheimer's patients do, especially in her stage - so we have to be the voice of reason. And reason tells me that, without using physical violence - which my dad did not do - we do what is necessary for the betterment of the patient. My mom always has been and always will be first in his heart and if I protrayed that wrongly, then it is on me. And it pains me that you would even begin to think like you did.


Bsargent answered...

I totally agree with grannylove2Wehad the same situation with my mother and now my father in law. They HAVE to be kept clean! Any way we can get them to bathe is what we have to do. We do it lovingly, but sometimes have to be firm! My father in law's head is covered with what I would call 'cradle cap'. He isn't washing it at all so when my husband brings him to my shop to cut his hair, I try to really scrub and clean his scalp. He smells and my husband tries and tries to get him to bathe. We can't take him out to eat any more because of the odor he has and his language. It's very easy to judge someone else when you haven't had to care for a parent or loved one in the latter stages of AD. I suppose because I've been the caretaker, I didn't look at it the same way you did, seekersusie. That dear man is trying his best to care for his wife - it's a very hard job! God Bless your parents grannylove2!


Glendaree answered...

To grannylove2 keep doing the best you can. What works for one may not work for others. The truth is they must be kept CLEAN. The filth will kill them quicker that the mental condition.


Susanpe answered...

My 85 year old mom was afraid of the shower when she was living in a different state with her significant other, as a result she just got sponge baths at best. She is incontinent, and while at the caregivers, he would not wipe her when she went to the bathroom, as a result, she got a bladder infection that went septic and she almost died. She is back to herself now, as she was before the infection, and she now lives with me. I don't let her wipe herself anymore, and she hasn't had an uti since. She is at the point in alzheimers that she doesn't know where the bathroom, bedroom is, nor how to completley dress herself. She can no longer cook, and I need to put a bib on her when she eats. If you show her the spoon, she is able to put it in her mouth, however, you have to be right there, because sometimes she doesn't have anything in the spoon. Back to the shower issue. Mom was really opposed to a shower. I figured out it wasn't the shower she was opposed to, but the cold bathroom before and after the shower. So, I bought a heater in the bathroom, which warms it up. I also get in the shower with her (I wear my bathing suit), and that way there is no cold air getting into the shower. She now loves getting her shower. After she gets out, I place her in front of the heater while I'm getting her dressed. She has no problems with it at all now. One of the writers above said they use Dial liquid soap. Please reconsider. If your loved one is anything like my mom, she has fragile skin, very sensitive. Dial really dries out the skin. I use Oil of Olay liquid soap in the shower. Not only is it gentle, but it hydrates her skin. She loves the smell, too. Be very gentle with the washcloth, that could be a reason she opposes showers. Don't give baths. If they soil their depends, she will be sitting in her own waste. Showers are better, and if they cannot stand up for the 10 minutes to wash their hair, get a bench. I only give a shower to my mom every other day at the most, which is what the doctor recommended. In between times, if she soils, I use baby wipes every time she goes to the bathroom. Because my mom is allergic to latex, I use plastic, non=latex gloves for myself, and clean her with them every time she goes to the bathroom. She stays clean in between showers. My also has arthrits, so it was much too dangerous to put her in the bathtub. She only has a 3" ridge to step over to get into the shower, which she can handle. You just have to be patient with them. As someone mentioned above, which is so true, let them teach you how to be old, and how to be a person with alzheimers. Be careful of your facial expressions and your voice, because even with alzheimers, they can pick up on your frustrations, and their feelings can get hurt. My mom is very sensitive, so I have learned to be very sensitive.She teaches me something every day. Kindness begets kindness.


Junebugthefirst answered...

As a health aide I come across many Alziemier patients. The biggest thing that seems to help is patience , respect and letting them think they are doing it themselves. They hate to be forced and lose their independence.They want to makeup their own mind and make their own choices. If you can find a way to let them think they are doing this shower/ washing hair themselves, you are just there to help, it sometimes works.This is based on if they can still talk. If not try to write it down. Example : we are going to take a bath and you will feel clean and smell great! It is a known fact that if they cannot talk or babble they can still read. You as personal caregivers all need a special hug and admiration. You are there 24/7 and have a difficult job. God bless you.


Sonniep answered...

I was the main caregiver for my Mother, who had dementia, for five years before she died. For a while, several months, she was afraid to get in the shower and would resist taking a shower. She had fallen in her tub once before she came to live with me so that added to her fear. It seemed like eventually her fear subsided or either the disease progressed past that point. I bought an expensive shower chair that you could slide from one side to the other, so she could sit down and then I would slide her into the tub, holding her legs up. The middle of the seat was removable so she could be cleaned on her bottom. It worked very well and she felt more secure and was more cooperative.


Mariamarta answered...

You don't need water! More in a moment....

A nursing home, I'm afraid, would medicate her to make her more easily "managed," and not just for a bath, but for other of their management needs in handling large groups of people. Or they'd sponge bath. Or just do what they were able to. Drugs will make her mentally and physically weaker much more quickly than if she were medicated only for HER needs. And water down the back, I've learned, is simply not an important enough reason to drug someone. I've cared for my mom for over 7 years now, and she often thinks people are watching her, and she doesn't want to disrobe in front of them. Sometimes these people are in the mirror, sometimes it's the people on TV, or just in her imagination. I'll turn lights and TVs off, cover mirrors & windows, try different ways to assure her modesty. I've heard this from other caregivers too, so it's not uncommon. Also, I purchased no-rinse body bath (the kind hospitals use to sponge bath in bed, you can find this in stores for the elderly and well-stocked drugstores & internet stores. Used by NASA in space!). Much more gentle on skin than regular soap, and can be used on privates too. Leaves behind a nice smell. When the objections are just too much, there are only a couple of parts that TRULY need to be cleaned regularly -- privates, underarms, feet, neck -- and doing it with a no-rinse solution and warm cloth means no water down the back. If hair must be cleaned, do it in the sink facing forward (no water down back) or with dry shampoo. And remember that if she lives long enough, this period will pass, as so many do, and you'll have reason to feel the loss, because you know she's getting weaker. Though my mom is not always as squeaky clean as she could be if sedated and "managed," she is always treated with gentle love and respect by someone she loves (even if she doesn't always show it!).


Ca-claire answered...

Just to let everyone know, although the fear of water is more common, there is also the other end of the spectrum. The Assisted Living place my father is in had to come up with special pricing for us. HE HAS TO SHOWER EVERY DAY! Not that he puts clean clothes on afterwards, but he is the exception to the norm. We pay $40/day for them to shower and help him dress. Worth every penny! He talks about how the 'young gals' come in and help him shower, and scrub his back for him. It's become his replacment for intimacy!


Cecilia2 answered...

Oh, Claire, my Uncle Woody did NOT want help. I finally said: "Uncle Woody, just pretend you are in the Army, on leave and you have TWO beautiful young women giving you a bath! From then on, the sounds of "Delicious, just Delicious"! came from his bath twice a week. Now I have brain damage and my reluctance to bathe makes NO SENSE to me not does my not taking my meds. But, even though I am quite normal half of the time, when I have a "Storm", there it is!! Hummm. Maybe I will put a picture of my husband in his youth in my shower. Yep! I know JUST the picture!