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

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 Answer

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.