How can I convince my mother that using wipes isn't a good replacement for a proper bath?

1 answer | Last updated: Sep 24, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 80 year old mother refuses to shower or take a bath. She insists that using "bathing" wipes from a package is doing the trick. She is very unstead and walks with a walker, but we just renovated her bathroom the shower is new and wide with a nice shower seat and grab bars and she still refuses to use it. She makes excuse after excuse. Her hair gets so dirty and rather than let me help her in the shower she will ask my Dad to drive her to the beauty shop so they can wash it. But she herself needs to be washed. She doesn't "smell" per se, but I know she is not able to get herself as clean as she should as she wears diapers and often soils them.

She has only let me help her get a shower once and once she came out she said she felt so much better, but that was almost a year ago. Since then she's only been using the wipes. She also smokes a lot so the smoke is in her hair and on her skin and I feel like it should be washed off regularly - at least once a week.

Everytime I bring it up to her she gets defensive and tells me that she doesn't want to shower. She says the wipes are doing a fine job. She gets angry and then shuts down and wont talk about it at all. My Dad is frustrated also because he said she gets an attitude with him also if he suggests she shower - so he just stops asking.

I have offered to pay a healthcare professional to come in to help with bathing in case it was a matter of her just not wanting me to do it, but she is refusing that also. My father is older than she is and he showers every day.

I just don't know what to do to get her to bathe. I don't feel like the wipes are an appropriate method of bathing. If she were completely bedridden then she would have to resort to a sponge bath in bed, but I understand that would involve washclothes and rinsing with clean water. But, she's only using the wipes and refusing to consider any other option.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated. She's lucid and that isn't the problem, so I thought if there was some sort of documentation that said "wipes" weren't an acceptable way of bathing she might be more receptive. But for now it just seems like she thinks I'm being completely unreasonable for asking her to shower.

Expert Answers

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

This is a tough situation. I have a feeling that there may be several issues going on. First, she wants to remain independent, and she is able to cleanse herself with these wipes without anyone's help. They must be working, as you say she doesn't have an odor. Second, since she is unsteady with her gait, she may be absolutely petrified of falling in the shower, even if someone is there to help her. Third, she may have some cognitive changes going on that don't allow her to realize that she needs to groom herself, and that wipes are not the best way to get clean. In reality, the wipes can dry out the skin (they contain alcohol) and cause irritation.

Here is my suggestion. Since she will not go in the shower, why not have her sit in a chair by the sink in the bathroom and wash herself (or you can help her) with some soap and water on washcloths? This way, she doesn't have to get in or out of the shower and she still gets washed. Regarding the refusal to wash her hair, you can try washing her hair over the sink too, having her lean back in a chair with her hair over the sink, using a cup to rinse the hair.

If all this fails, I wouldn't push the situation. I would just let her continue to use the wipes and go to the hairdresser weekly to get her hair washed, just as long as she doesn't smell bad, looks clean, and her skin is in good shape. Good luck!