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Elderly Parents Who Won’t Wash – Dealing with Personal Hygiene

Of the many concerns facing the children of elderly parents, personal hygiene is one of the most difficult to discuss.  It feels like a very private and frankly embarrassing issue, but although this is a sensitive area there are strategies to help you find a way forward.

Understanding Personal Hygiene Problems in the Elderly

The key to solving any problem lies in understanding it.  If you don’t get your head around the reasons for your elderly parents taking less care over their personal hygiene you will find it far more difficult to reach a solution.

In fact, there are many possible reasons for the elderly refusing to take baths or showers.

  • Depression.  This is a widespread problem amongst the elderly and creates a lack of interest in many of the important routines of daily life, including personal hygiene.  Consider whether there are other signs of depression, such as a lack of energy.  If so, consult your parent’s GP, who will be able to help.
  • Weaker Senses. With age the senses of sight and smell can deteriorate.  Sweat odours and food stains may be very obvious to you but this may not be the case for your elderly parents.
  • Fear.  Increasing mobility and balance problems could make your parents afraid of climbing into the bath or standing on the wet floor of a shower cubicle.
  • Memory.  Remembering the last time they took a bath or shower can be tricky for some elderly parents.  If there is little defined activity to distinguish one day from another they can easily lose track of time and simply forget a proper wash is due.
  • Control.  Ageing can be a process that strips away people’s sense of control.  For many, even something as basic as washing and dressing can feel like one thing they still have power over and so if they believe they are being nagged to improve they can dig their heels in!
  • Different Generations.  Only in recent times has daily bathing become the norm for many.  In your parents’ youth this was rarely the case and often a bath would be a weekly event.  Whilst parents probably improved on this as they went through their lives, the nature of memory in age makes recent events hazy whilst the past shines brightly.  Combined with forgetfulness, habits of the past can start to feel perfectly normal.

How Do I Encourage my Elderly Parent to Wash Regularly?

Once you’ve understood the likely cause of your elderly parent’s problems with personal hygiene, it’s a lot easier to deal with.

First of all you have to be both realistic and sensitive.  This is a difficult area and you don’t want to hurt your parent’s feelings or make the situation even worse.  So don’t expect to solve the problem overnight with a frank chat and don’t expect too much too quickly.

The focus must be on compromise.  You have to understand your parent’s worries and in time with gentle persuasion they should begin to understand yours.  Just as your parent may have to accept assistance they don’t want and possibly even changes to the home, you must be prepared to lower your own standards if necessary.

You will probably have been used to your parents looking pristine and smelling fragrant.  If you are too persistent in attempting to return them to this it makes no difference that you mean it lovingly and with their best interests at heart.  The end result is they will feel belittled and humiliated, which is even worse.

With a realistic and sensitive approach you will be more likely to reach a compromise which will leave everyone feeling better.

Lifestyle and Medication

If you feel depression is a factor seek medical advice.  Your parent’s GP will probably be reluctant to prescribe anti-depressants these days but will certainly offer advice on dealing with the depression and making changes in lifestyle which will gradually help.  Introducing activity and interest into your parent’s life will help defeat depression and restore a desire to keep clean with better washing habits.

Positive Encouragement

Depression aside, reduced social activity can be part of the problem.  The less your parents go out the more they will feel content with not bothering to wash regularly.  After all, this can genuinely be an effort for them!

So try to create more situations where going out will make them want to be well presented.  Perhaps get an old friend or relative they don’t see very often to phone up and arrange an outing; a little encouragement to ‘look your best for Angela’ could be just what they need.

If your parents are in a negative rut where they’re not bathing regularly then you have to help them break out of that.  Give them reasons to want to be clean rather than simply telling them to improve.

Bathing Aids for the Elderly

If fear and mobility are problems there is a lot you can do to help.  A range of bathing aids is available, from anti-slip mats, grab handles and shower seats right through to electric bath chairs which can lower your elderly parent safely into the bath.  Your local authority may be able to help you with this and can send an occupational therapist to assess your parent’s needs professionally.

Help with Washing

You may feel it would be appropriate to encourage your parent to allow family members to help with washing.  This is a huge step and so should be handled with kid gloves.  Make sure the idea is presented as an offer of help, not a demand because ‘something has to be done’.  Try to get your parent to see there is a problem, perhaps initially just by asking if they’re finding looking after themselves more difficult lately.

If they say no then drop the subject – don’t badger them.  It’s a big issue and may need some time for them to reflect and appreciate the need.  You can bring it up again at a later date when they may be more receptive.

Help can begin with small steps.  Perhaps just washing hair and then maybe washing their face.  As such assistance becomes normal and accepted then you can build it up, taking areas of the body at a time.  It can also be seen as a combined effort, with your parent doing whatever he or she can so they still retain a sense of some control.

This must always be done in such a way as to preserve your parent’s dignity.

Eventually this help might develop into very extensive assistance and bed baths.  For detailed advice on this you should read our Guide on Bed Baths for Elderly Parents.

In-Home Care Services

Ultimately, the most practical solution may be to take on in-home care services.  This ensures your parent is in professional hands and kept properly clean.  However, this is still an area which needs incredibly careful handling.

Would you like a stranger coming into your home to give you a bath?  Your parent will feel no differently.  They will perhaps understand the need but it doesn’t change the emotional issues of letting it happen.

Put yourself in your parents’ shoes and listen to their concerns.  When you feel they are ready they can meet with a carer who will be fully trained in dealing with this situation sensitively and who can answer all their questions.  As with family help routines can start small and then build up until your parents feel fully comfortable with the situation.

A truly professional in-home care provider will ensure your parents aren’t on a merry-go-round of different carers.  This means they will have people with whom they are familiar and at ease.  In this way you can have the reassurance your parents are in good hands and that personal hygiene no longer need be a worry.

Nobilis In-Home Care Services

If you live in the general Hampshire area Nobilis provides tried and trusted in-home care.  We understand the stresses felt by families over the problems of ageing and we are sensitive to the needs of the elderly.

There are plenty of alternatives to in-home care, such as we’ve explained above, and even if you’re not interested in what we have to offer we’re more than happy to share our advice and experience.  Whatever the problems you are facing with elderly parents, there is always a constructive way forward.  Call our friendly team now and be reassured you won’t be subjected to any sales pitch – we’ll simply listen to your concerns and offer the best advice we can.

Telephone – 0845 6800225