How to Bathe Elderly People

Caregiver bathing elderly man in shower

Caregiver using handheld showerhead to bathe elderly man in shower.

When providing care for an aging loved one, one of your main responsibilities will be helping him or her bathe. Bathing an elderly person can be a considerable challenge, both physically and emotionally. This is particularly true when the senior is resistant to bathing due to fear, discomfort or plain stubbornness.

Regardless of how resistant your loved one is, however, it is your responsibility to help her keep up with her hygiene. One important thing to remember is that perceptions of cleanliness are different from person to person, generation to generation and culture to culture.

While you may have difficulty imagining going for more than a day without a shower, your loved one may remember a childhood of taking a bath only once per week and not find anything wrong with that. More important than keeping up a frequent schedule is ensuring the senior is kept clean enough for her body to stay presentable and healthy.

Why May Elderly Bathing Become a Necessity?

Not all seniors need to be bathed by their caregivers. Some are still perfectly capable of taking baths or shower on their own, particularly when aided by a walk-in tub. Others, however, cope with physical or cognitive challenges that make it difficult or impossible for them to maintain their hygiene ritual. Some of the reasons you may need to bathe an elderly person include:

  • Mobility Issues: the bathroom, and especially the tub or shower, can be a dangerous place. Mobility issues common in aging can make it very difficult for a senior to navigate getting into a tub or shower, move around effective and actually go through the motions of bathing. Without help seniors are at tremendous risk of slipping and falling while bathing. When mobility issues are caused or exacerbated by an issue such as stroke, your loved one may find it even more difficult to manage, both physically and emotionally.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease: though it is not completely understood, one of the most common shared symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease is a fear of or resistance to bathing. Some of this can be explained as simply an effect of the confusion and unclear thoughts seniors coping with this disease have. Some may not understand the need to bathe, while others develop a true fear of the process.
  • Memory Challenges: even without the presence of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, your aging loved one can face progressively worse memory. Some may believe they showered just the day before when in reality they have not bathed in a week or more. With memory challenges often comes a sense of losing control. Many seniors will resist bathing and changing clothing as a way of resisting another person making all of her decisions for her.
  • Changes in Perception: though most people bathe as a regular part of their care routine, many seniors grew up with the idea that you only needed to bathe when you were dirty or smelled bad enough to warrant it. They can maintain these ideas throughout their lives and use them to warrant not bathing regularly. Changes in their sensory perception, however, make it so they are less able to detect bodily odors that may otherwise have encouraged them to bathe.

How to Bathe Elderly People Safely and Effectively

When bathing seniors, safety, comfort and dignity are your top priorities. You must remember you are bathing an elderly person, and you must show respect and care to that senior throughout the process. Here are some tips for how to bathe an elderly person properly:

  • Ensure a non-slip surface: use mats and textured surfaces to help protect your aging loved one from slipping while bathing. These should be used both in and out of the tub to prevent dangerous slips and falls. This will protect not only the elderly person, but you as well.
  • Check the water temperature carefully: be sure the water in the tub or coming from the shower head is not too hot or too cold. A comfortable, soothing warm temperature will make a senior much more receptive to bathing. Check the temperature with the inside of your wrist for a more accurate measurement of the temperature. This area of your body is more sensitive than your hand, so it will detect higher temperatures more accurately.
  • Provide a warm room: make sure the bathroom is warm before bringing your loved one in. Being cold while undressing or bathing will make the senior even less receptive to bathing. Be careful to use a heater that is not too strong for the electrical outlets in the room and can be kept a safe distance from the shower to prevent the water from hitting it. You may also want to consider having heating lamps installed in the ceiling, if you can. These lamps warm the warm very quickly, and can be turned off when your loved one is in the shower to prevent you from getting too hot, or getting burned.
  • Move gradually: avoid any sudden movements such as turning or bending. These can be disorienting and cause your senior to fall. Allowing your loved one to sit on a shower bench and using a handheld shower head is generally the easiest way to keep your loved one safe while you are bathing her.
  • Give slow, clear instructions: speak with your aging loved one throughout the entire process. Take your time and carefully explain exactly what you are doing to reduce anxiety and encourage compliance. Use simple terms such as, “Please lift your left foot so I can wash the bottom.”
  • Encourage independence: if there are aspects of the bathing process your senior can do on her own, encourage her to do them. Taking as much control as she can will give her confidence, maintain dignity and reduce her fear.
  • Use appropriate soaps: most seniors have more sensitive skin that when they were younger. This means that soaps and body washes can be irritating and even cause damage to their skin. Choose a soap or body wash that is formulated for sensitive skin and contains no fragrances or dyes, as these can be very irritating.
  • Use a shower cap if you are not shampooing your loved one’s hair: having wet hair on your back makes you feel cold and uncomfortable. This can make the bathing experience even more unpleasant for your elderly loved one. Using a shower cap will keep her hair dry so she is more comfortable throughout the shower.
  • Respect their privacy: use caution and thought when considering bathing your loved one’s private areas. Depending on their mobility and cognitive abilities, they may not be able to wash these areas on their own. If you are going to wash them, using effective bathing tools can help you do so with dignity and respect. One such tool is a bathing mitt. These mitts have pockets that contain soap so you are not actually touching their body. This also gives you greater control when bathing so you are able to clean their body more effectively.
  • Use distractions: sometimes, distracting an elderly person can help ease her anxiety so she can get through the bathing process more comfortably. Discuss topics other than bathing, or play soft music in the background. If your loved one enjoys it, play active, playful music that will encourage her to sing and even dance along so she is not thinking about her worries related to bathing.
  • Provide warm clothing: as soon as your loved one gets out of the bath you should have warm towels and warm clothing awaiting her. Consider tumbling the towels in the dryer for a few minutes prior to the bath so they will be warm when she uses them. This will let you dry your loved one and get her dressed right in the warmed bathroom to prevent unpleasant chills.

For further help view this how to video at You tube.

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