Something that many carers and people who work in aged care might have observed is that older people sometimes become reluctant to bathe or take a shower.

Even those who were once very conscious of their appearance and the way they present themselves to the world can become lax about bathing and even putting on clean clothes.

Why is this so?

There can be a number of reasons that older people might ‘give up’ on their personal hygiene.

  • Sometimes older people, especially those with dementia, may fear taking a shower. The person may be afraid of falling, or they may even think their carer is trying to hurt them. By creating a warm, relaxing atmosphere in the bathroom, carers can try to allay some of this fear. It’s also important in these situations to aim to make showering as safe and easy as possible. Ideally bathe in a walk-in shower, use a sturdy shower chair and a hand-held shower head, make sure there are grab bars in place, and non-slip surfaces on the floor.
  • Older people’s senses can become dull. They may not notice that they are beginning to smell. A gentle hint can help in this situation – although you do risk the person being offended!
  • If the person feels isolated and cut off from their community, or depressed about their life or health, they might give up on caring about how they look or how clean they are. If this is the case, we recommend speaking to a doctor about the possibility of the person having depression, and the options surrounding treatment.
  • Sometimes older people may forget they haven’t showered. If this is the case, you can mark on a calendar when showers should be taken.
  • Modesty or shyness can also make some older people reluctant to take a shower. Older people might feel uncomfortable about undressing in front of another person, especially someone they know. Sometimes hiring an extra person, previously unknown to the older person, who can help with showering can remove some of the embarrassment, especially if the person thinks of them simply as a medical practitioner there to help them.

If the reluctance to shower remains – does it really matter?

If the person you are caring for remains reluctant to take a bath, you may have to resort to just sponging them. Do it gently, speak to them kindly and softly, and explain everything you do. Reassure them.

Sponging generally involves using a warm washcloth to wipe armpits, the groin area, genitals, feet and any skin folds. It can help to older people avoid developing body odor between showering.

If person is reluctant to shower, it might also be useful to examine why you are concerned about their hygiene? Are you worried about the person’s wellbeing, or are you more concerned about society’s judgement?

Showering does help older people avoid skin tears and infections, so it does have health benefits.

And of course, our appearance is one way we can present ourselves to the world. If we take pride in our appearance, it usually follows that we have dignity and self respect.

When an older person lets their appearance slip, it can give the impression they have given up on themselves, and have lost some of their dignity.

It’s understandable we might also be concerned about how others might judge the care we are providing.

But does that matter?

So long as the person you are caring for is hygienic enough that they remain healthy, perhaps it’s okay to let showering slip from time to time.

A general rule of thumb is to shower at least twice a week, but even this isn’t set in stone.

You may even find that if you take the pressure off having regular showers, the older person you are caring for might find it easier to bathe and you can find a more relaxed, harmonious equilibrium for you both.

Please note: the image used to illustrate this article does not represent actual people or events.

Image: Young man, Old man – Tom Hussey photographer.

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