It’s Not Easy Gettin’ Clean: Bathing with Dementia

Coaxing a frightened, depressed, or stubborn loved one to bathe can be an unpleasant undertaking. Poor hygiene can, of course, be a far worse alternative.

“Poor hygiene may begin with minor body odor, dirty clothes, and an unkempt appearance – mild sensory offenses some caregiver may be willing to put up with for a few days if it means keeping the peace,” explains Teleia Farrell, Community Relations Director of YourLifeTM of West Melbourne, a Memory Care community in West Melbourne, Florida. “But left unchecked, it can bring new and compound existing health problems, like infection and brain-harming gum disease.”

But extolling the benefits of soap – and rattling off logical hygiene facts to someone with advancing dementia – won’t assuage their anxieties or get them in the tub any faster. So, what will?

In this post, we’ll take a (admittedly loose) page from Kermit’s songbook: he succeeded at being comfortable being green, and we’ll help your loved one be comfortable getting clean with safety and dignity.

ASKING THE NOT-SO-OBVIOUS: Why Is Your Loved One Reluctant to Bathe? Don’t expect your loved one with dementia to volunteer that they are worried about falling in the shower or embarrassed about undressing in front of you. Pay attention to their body language. If they act scared or apprehensive, ask them pointed questions to get the root of their concerns.

Those in later stages may fear running water or believe their caregivers are trying to harm them, triggering a catastrophic reaction. Reassure them that you are there to keep them safe and comfortable. If your loved one is unable to verbalize why they are resisting bathing, consider these possibilities:

  • The Depression Cycle. Depression often coexists with dementia. Depression can make bathing itself feel like an overwhelming chore, and if it takes away your loved one’s desire or ability to pursue hobbies or engage socially, it can also eliminate any incentive they may have had to bathe. Why look nice if no one is going to see them?
  • Loss of Control. When losing control in other parts of life, taking control of (or refusing) personal hygiene can feel empowering. They may be angry or embarrassed that they require your assistance with this intimate activity.
  • Dulling Senses. Diminishing ability to read small print or hear well we associate with getting older. Our sense of smell also dulls as we age and dementia progresses. Body odor or dirt may not be as noticeable to oneself, so bathing seems unnecessary.
  • Personal Habits. Are you timing your efforts appropriately? If your loved one always took a shower at night, don’t try to give them a bath in the morning.
  • Fear and Discomfort. Bathrooms are hard, wet, and slippery, and what was once a regular routine becomes a risky situation. The fear of falling or being cold and exposed deters many from bathing, and the very act of bathing may be painful. Joint pain, loss of energy, and restricted range of motion may make it difficult to undress and wash the body.
  • Are You Showing a Lack of Confidence? If you’re a senior yourself caring for an elderly parent, you may have reached a point where you’re not as confident in your own balance, strength, or other abilities needed to guarantee your loved one’s safety when bathing. This may scare your loved one or cause distrust.



  • Make Bathing Part of an Enjoyable Routine. Play soothing music or engage them in an enjoyable activity prior to bath time to raise their spirits and agreeability factor. Coupling bathing days with other grooming activities such as giving them a pretty manicure or pedicure can also create positive associations.
  • Respect their modesty and independence. If your loved one feels vulnerable or self-conscious while bathing, hold up a bath sheet while your loved one washes. If they require your assistance, allow them to hold the sheet.
  • Use the right bathing aids and maximize comfort. Lift chairs, transfer benches, handheld showerheads, and shower chairs are a few of the aids that can make bathing easier. Shower rails/grips, non-slip shower mats, and extra lighting can make the bathroom safer.
  • Use products that smell and feel good. A favorite, familiar scent or brand of shampoo may make bathing more enjoyable.
  • Create a warm space. Warm up the bathroom and find the right water temperature in advance. A warm fluffy towel right from the dryer feels welcoming to anyone after a shower.
  • Time medications so they will be working at their peak and reduce discomfort.
  • Compromise Is Okay. It is important to have a regular bath or shower, but there are many hygiene products that can help stretch the time between baths. Personal wipes, no-rinse shampoos and body wash, and sponge baths can be the comprise needed. Although personal wipes and sink baths may help seniors maintain their independence, they are not intended to replace a regular bath or shower.
  • Ask for Help.
  • Home health care aides are trained to help with bathing and hygiene, including safe transfers to the tub and communicating with people with memory loss. They can make this task less stressful and more efficient. They can also help with laundry and other small chores. It is sometimes easier for elderly persons to be exposed in front of a stranger over a family member. Medicare or your loved one’s insurance policy may help cover the cost of at-home care.
  • Consider long-term care options. Hygiene issues may be only part of the picture. Long-term care options can give reprieve and peace of mind to family members and give their loved one complete, professional care in one place.      




For more at-home caregiving tips, call the experts at YourLife™ of West Melbourne today! 321-206-4006


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