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Why Won’t Your Alzheimers or Dementia Parent Take Showers

My husband's Mom with Alzheimers moved in with us a while ago and I realized pretty early on we have some serious differences in our idea of personal cleanliness. Here are some thoughts about why Alzheimer and Dementia patients don't want to wash AND some tips and ideas about how to get them clean!

Why Won't Your Alzheimers or Dementia Parent Take Showers... My husband's Mom with Alzheimers moved in with us a while ago and I realized pretty early on we have some serious differences in our idea of personal cleanliness. Here are some thoughts about why Alzheimer and Dementia patients don't want to wash AND some tips and ideas about how to get them clean!

Our Bathing Dementia Story

Mom had fallen and laid on the floor for a couple of days at her condo before she figured out how to call me, so she was tired, scared, and pretty darn dirty at that point!

So of course I said, all bright and cheery, that she should hop into the shower and get cleaned up! Whoa, that was EXACTLY the wrong thing to say… who knew a shower could be controversial?

Over the next day, I kept saying she should get a shower and she said she was fine and didn't need to wash. This should have been my first clue that something was amiss, but I missed it.

Over and over I said, “Mom, you have to take a shower” and over and over she said, “Tara, please don't make me take a shower!”

What the heck was going on?

Why Won't Alzheimers & Dementia Patients Take Showers

So first a little background about me… I take a shower every day! I love showers and have washed myself everyday since I can remember. My shower is filled with pretty smelling soaps and gels… oh and I get away from my 3 kids, 2 dogs, 2 cats and the turtle in there. It is my super special alone place.

Well, come to find out, many people, especially older people, don't have that same feeling about a shower. My friend Tena D who is from South Dakota said they never took showers as children and there was only one bath day…

Saturday night! They would fill the tub, everyone would hop in and out, warming the water occasionally and bam, clean for the week.

Come to think of it, my Mother, who died in her late 50s and who would have been 80 now did weekly bath thing… she never showered.

Doh. No wonder Mom (my Mother In Law) won't take a shower… she may have never showered before in her life.

Even though it would be SO MUCH EASIER, the thought of a shower is super foreign to her!

Reasons Older People Might Not Want To Shower

The way I process anything is write and research it… so I thought that I would check out some reasons old dears might fear a shower!

Cultural Issues

I sort of already covered this, but in case you are a “skipper”, many older people were not raised with a daily shower, or even showers at all! My Mother In Law is Finnish so her early bathing experience is with a sauna (pronounced SOW-NA). From doing some sauna research, it seems like it was a weekly bathing ritual.  Ahhh again with once a week bathing.

So if your world view is that bathing is a weekly thing, done as a “bird bath” with a washcloth and hair washed in the kitchen sink, my daily shower ritual must seem to be NUTSO!

The problem currently is that sometimes she soils herself and so a once a week option is really not on the table…sigh.

Worry About Falling

Another anxiety could be the fear of falling in shower. I KNOW, we have grab bars, can get a chair to sit on and a bagillion other accommodations, but I know for a fact that my Mother In Law is terrified of falling in the shower.

I kind of get this one. Unless the floor is squeaky clean, it is easy for your feet to slip out from underneath you, and she isn't so stable a walker as it is!

Modesty

Let's call a spade a spade, there is no really good way to protect modesty in the shower. You have to get totally naked all at once and as an Alzheimers patient, there is very little chance you will be left alone to take a shower.

Yes, I know you could put a towel around, avert your eyes or any other of a number of things, but seriously, that person is still naked and exposed.

Don't Know They Are Dirty

Okay, this is going to be a little graphic, but here goes. Mom had poop all down the back of her legs when I cracked and insisted that she HAD TO GET CLEAN!

She was still trying to avoid it, but when I was super blunt and said she had shit down her legs, FINALLY I was able to get a wash cloth with soap to hit her skin… winning! I know that sounds terrible, but I was just so happy that I didn't have to smell her anymore I was almost crying tears of joy.

Can't Remember How Many Days It Has Been Since Showering

When Mom was wearing her Thanksgiving dinner dress three days later (having slept in it day and night), we had to keep reminding her that it had been so many days since the holiday.

One of the hard things about caring for an Alzheimers patient is to join them in the lack of time reference. Suggesting that it has been so many days since Thanksgiving really has no frame of reference when she resets about every 20 minutes.

Tips and Ideas For Getting Them To Take A Shower

All of that is great for understanding, but what the heck can we do about it? How do you get a person with dementia to take a shower?

Medical Appointments

For some reason understood only to her, Mom is great at her doctor's appointments. She expects to clean up to go and we only have a few times where she really didn't want to go.

If your loved one is good at doctors appointments, schedule them a week apart rather than on the same day or concurrent days.

I know it sounds crazy to spend that much time at the doctors, but for me the “no problem” clean is worth it!

Something Fun To Do

Mom loves to go out to lunch! YAY! On weeks that we don't have a doctors appointment, often I can get her to go out to eat for lunch. Which means… bathing and clean clothes! Whoo whoo!

I actually like to go out to eat with Mom so this is a win-win situation.

For your loved one this might mean gong to church weekly, a senior daycare or something else that they enjoy doing.

A Family Holiday

The holidays are a great, low stress bathing time (the rest of things are falling apart but Mom likes to dress for dinner!) For example, tomorrow is my big girl's birthday. She is coming home for dinner and cake and the Grandpas are coming too!

This will be an easy day to get mom cleaned up.

Explain Showering

I never thought of this one but a reader sent this one in! (if you have a great idea, please send me a message to tara@marketingartfully.com)

I just read your blog…patients who refuse to shower and wanted to add a comment. I finally realized that my husband didn’t want to shower because he admitted to me that he couldn’t remember how to make the shower work! So simple! So then I would get shower started and temp just right for him, THEN take him to shower!  submitted by Alma

Establish A Weekly Routine

I read on the Alzheimer Association website they suggest that having a routine for bathing would be a good idea. I agree it would and we do this with our kids. We simple say, “time for your shower” to our kids and they trot right into the bathroom and get clean.

Now, this might work for your loved one, and what makes giving advice about Alzheimers so hard! The way they said this so happy like, I thought that would be great. We would just get into a routine of every other day or every third day and BAM, good to go! This did not work for my Mom at all. She honestly couldn't give a crap about what day it is and that it was “time” for her bird bath or shower.

That said, because Alzheimer and dementia patients  live so much in the past, if they grew up with a “Saturday Bath” routine you might be able to get them to wash up every Saturday pretty easily!

Additional Resource :: My Morning Routine As A Caregiver

Have An Authority Figure Step In

This one works sometimes for me! I didn't think it was controversial, so fingers crossed no one yells at me!

I am Mom's primary caregiver. I do her pills and take her to the doctor. I help her wash her hair and her butt and so am more caretaker than authority figure.

My husband on the other hand is pretty hands off. He is great with her doing things that need done, but he isn't nagging her to brush her teeth or fetching her glasses for the 3rd time today.

For this reason he is perfect authority figure. Sometimes when it gets really bad I will tell him to say something and about 2/3 of the time she will clean up within a day! Now, this isn't one I can go to all the time or it will lose it's potency, but when I am desperate, I bring in the big dog!

Get A Home Health Aide In

I am in a Alzheimers group on Facebook and some of the gals there were talking about showers the other day. One of them said that her Dad wouldn't let anyone in the home bathe him, but he would get a shower when the home health aide came in.

A bunch of the other people said that didn't work for them, so like everything this is going to have mixed results depending on whether your loved one responds to the aide you bring in.

One thing that seems to be a major trouble with this plan is that some home health aide companies send different people each time so there is no consistency in who is coming to care for your Alzheimer or Dementia patient. This seems to cause a real problem with agreeing to bathe.

Controversial – Shock them

My first big “fight” about bathing resulted in me yelling, “your legs are covered in shit, we need to wash you”. Sigh.

I know that is not the best way to get your loved ones to comply, but I couldn't take it anymore! And it worked, Mom let me clean off her legs and put on clean clothes.

I am happy that it worked, but I would only use this one in case of emergency. It was shocking to Mom to realize that she was that dirty and then that I had yelled a profanity at her.

I am not proud that I lost my composure, but was glad to have a clean Mom!

Controversial – Trick Them

This is another one that seems a little creepy to type out loud! Only use this depending on your level of guilt about lying!

So you could say that there was a doctors appointment, a family holiday or even an emergency coming up (I KNOW that doesn't make sense, neither does much of what Mom thinks!)

Figure out what makes them shower and then create that situation, even if you have to say that it was “cancelled” afterward.

I KNOW, this sounds really crappy to do to someone you love, but remember, sitting in your own filth is not healthy either so this is definitely “for the greater good”.

Pick Your Bathing Battles

Last but not least has more to do with you than them! Yes, I wish I could pop Mom into the shower each day and snug into clean clothes. It would make me feel better to be clean, but it doesn't feel better to her.

Since tomorrow is family holiday, I know she will be cleaning up… so I have decided not to think about it today! A clean day off!

While your cleanliness level may be higher than your loved one, you can't make every day a battle of cleaning wills. Sometimes have grace and give yourself a day off!

Getting Your Dementia Mom To Shower In A Nursing Home

When I first wrote this post Mom was living with us… since them we have moved her into a home and it is still a pain to get her to shower! Here are a few tips I have for now and some sent in by readers!

Strike While The Iron Is Hot

I have been about as successful at getting Mom to shower at the nursing home as I was here at home… meaning mostly unsuccessful!

That having been said, whenever she even mentions washing her hair I spring up and get her shower ready! Every time so far this has worked, even if she changes her mind right away I can get her to clean up… yay!

Thus far the home has been unable to get her to shower. And I have noticed that they have a trouble with almost all the residents so it isn't an “our loved ones problem” it is a dementia problem your loved one has!

Reader Tip… Have It Ready To Go

My father is living on a memory care unit, and the staff called us to say that he wouldn’t shower.  When they came in the morning to help him shower, he told them he always showered at night, and of course at night he told them he always showered in the morning. 

I don’t think he was purposefully being manipulative.  He just always thought it wasn’t the right time.  We bought him soap on a rope, fluffy towels, nice shampoo, but nothing made a difference. 

Finally one staff member just went into his room as he was getting out of bed, and said “I’ve just turned your shower on, Ted.  You finish up and breakfast will be waiting for you.”  To be clear, they wouldn’t withhold breakfast if he didn’t shower, but somehow having the shower ready for him and breakfast as a reinforcement seems to be working. 

Mary Lou

Great Video About How To Help Them Get Clean!

Fran Gorecki

Sunday 26th of June 2022

You could try Scrubbz Disposable No Rinse Bathing Wipes from Amazon. Just add water and it suds up. No rinsing needed. Just pat dry. Not as good as a shower but it eliminates the fear if falling in the shower and might help out between showers.

Pam Rickers

Sunday 22nd of May 2022

It might sound obvious but if the person has been brought before the days of showers why not try a bath instead? Yes I’m in the UK, is it a tub in the US?

TD

Thursday 28th of April 2022

Love this article. I am the youngest of 8 children. I am the only one she will shower with even though the 4 daughters are supposed to take turns on Sundays and family friend is paid during the week which she has started not to bathe with her but just wash her face and brush her teeth. Her sons feel like this isn't something they should be doing until she refuse to wash for a few days. It takes a village to raise a child and an adult with dementia. I have shared this with my family. Regardless of what we go through, we all have agreed it is a blessing to know she is still with us. :)

Annette

Sunday 24th of April 2022

My mom would did not like to take her shower. After talking to her, she said when she gets out she’s cold. Problem solver...put her towel in the dryer or microwave to keep her warm when she steps out of the shower.

Also, if I asked her if she wanted to take her shower, she would say no. Many times dementia patients answer “no” to a question without even thinking about it. Instead I would just tell her it was time for her shower, or whatever else I wanted her to do and she would say “OK” and be compliant to the situation.

She died of dementia and I miss her every day.

Tara Jacobsen

Wednesday 4th of May 2022

I am so sorry to hear that Annette... we all lose them in the end. Great tip about that "automatic no" thing!

Pam

Tuesday 12th of April 2022

The solution to our bathing problem was a home health aid. We could argue about shower till the cows came home. Tell mom her nurse was coming to bath her and she couldn’t wait. Go figure it was a blessing.

Tara Jacobsen

Wednesday 4th of May 2022

We had home health come in just before mom had to go to the home and they were awesome!