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Real Caregivers Share their Top Solutions for Bath Time Challenges

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Bathing resistance is a common challenge among family caregivers caring for a loved one with dementia. Peruse any online support group for Alzheimer’s or dementia caregiving and you will find dozens if not hundreds of threads created by caregivers frustrated by a loved one’s reluctance or refusal to take a shower on a regular basis.

Recently the question arose again in Lakelyn Hogan’s Alzheimer’s Caregiver Community. She decided to poll the caregivers of that group to glean their best, most creative tips for solving this frustrating situation. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Modify your expectations

In North American culture, a daily shower is seen as a “must” for personal hygiene. However, for older adults a daily shower may not be necessary. If a loved one is resistant to daily showering, you might modify your expectations and try encouraging frequent sponge baths instead.

Gail, who took care of an older lady named Nell, said, "As long as there aren’t any issues, I think a daily shower isn't a must…In between showers, Nell would take ‘airplane baths’: under the wings, hood and the tail end. She would laugh at it."

2. Question the necessity of using water

A caregiver named Kelly decided to avoid a bath time tussle with a senior she was caring for and opted for a waterless shower instead. Through this creative thinking, she accomplished two goals: ensuring the personal hygiene of the senior and honoring the senior’s preferences. She said, “I have a wonderful little lady in my care who grew up in a time before showers. She hates water and will not take a shower. Forget redirection, pleading, begging....not effective. So we got creative. She has always ‘washed up’ at the sink. There is a wonderful product called foaming no rinse cleanser. Best stuff since toilet paper. It contains wonderful emollients for the skin, kills odors and doesn't have to be rinsed off.”

3. Think beyond mere hygiene and consider the overall ambiance of the experience

Bath time should not be an ordeal. It should be a time for relaxation and enjoyment. To facilitate this, caregiver Barbara recommends thinking about the all-around shower time ambiance as a way to obtain cooperation. "Play music the older adult likes in the background," Barbara recommends.

4. Get help from a person of authority

Some people with cognitive decline may be more likely to follow a doctor’s orders than to acquiesce to the demands of a family caregiver. If you think that may be true for your loved one, follow caregiver Donna’s suggestion: "You can get the doctor to write a ‘prescription’ that says he has to take a shower every Tuesday and Saturday or something like that," she said.

5. Use empathy to understand their objections

A senior who is resistant to bathing may have a perfectly logical explanation for her stubbornness. However, people with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia may have difficulty articulating why they don’t want to shower. Carin suggests using empathy to put yourself in the person’s shoes to try to understand the reasons why they refuse to bathe.

"Finding out why they don't like to shower may be difficult to ascertain, but it will be helpful to know in order to be understanding and, perhaps, aid in cooperation,” Carin said. “Maybe they get, assure them that you will have the room warm (if possible). Or perhaps they feel they don’t get dried off thoroughly. You can offer to have a hair dryer on hand so they will be thoroughly dried using the low setting.”

6. Drop the interpersonal battle and enlist professional help

Family caregivers often share a long, intimate personal history with the person they care for. Sometimes this can lead to power struggles that result in bath time battles. If this rings true for you, try Chyrell’s advice to enlist a professional to help.

"My recommendation is find someone who appropriately interacts with your loved one and keep them forever. Dementia patients do not like change and will only take directions from those they trust. Hiring a professional caregiver has taken a huge burden off of me and given me some time to actually visit and talk to my dad about the good old days,” Chyrell said.

You may need to try a combination of these suggestions in order to find a way to entice a senior loved one to bathe regularly, but eventually you may find a middle ground that works for both of you.

Last revised: September 7, 2017

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