Many Alzheimer’s patients are afraid to bathe. For some, the cause is embarrassment of being naked in front of other people, particularly strangers. Other Alzheimer’s patients struggle with bathing because they’re afraid of drowning or slipping in the water. Still others dislike being cold when they take off their clothes. Luckily, there are some things you can do to make bathing a bit easier.
Start by trying to get to the root of the problem. Ask the person questions about their fears and pay close attention to their behavior to attempt to determine the real issue. That information should tell you which of the tips below will be most useful for your situation. Or just try them all!
1. Choose the right time of day.
If the patient tends to be sleepy or confused at particular times of the day, such as right after waking up or after a heavy meal, avoid bathing them at those times. The person will be most likely to understand your reasoning and cooperate with you when they are in their most alert and aware state.
2. Take safety precautions.
It’s best to bathe a person with mobility challenges in a bathtub or shower that has bars to grab onto. If your tub or shower doesn’t have a seat, you can also place a stool in it. Just make sure the stool is stable and won’t slide, even when wet. You can purchase non-slip bathtub mats with grips on them to keep the patient and their chair from sliding around as well. Hopefully these safety features will also provide a sense of security for a person who is worried about slipping or drowning in the bath.
3. Have all your supplies close at hand.
When you’re elbow-deep in bathwater and trying to reassure a frightened elderly person that everything is going to be okay, you’re not going to want to have to leave the room to grab a towel or fresh clothing or whatever else you forgot. Plan what you’re going to need in advance so that you can be in the room with the patient for the duration of the bath.
4. Make the bathroom inviting and comfortable.
Get the room up to a nice cozy temperature and try to give the person as much privacy as you can. Give them a robe or towel to wear before and after bathing, but also consider letting them keep a towel around their shoulders or a washcloth over private areas while in the shower to avoid that vulnerable feeling that comes with nakedness. If the person still seems overly timid, consider covering the bathroom mirror; some dementia victims have trouble recognizing their own reflections and may mistake themselves for a stranger standing in the room with them.
5. Let them help.
Many Alzheimer’s patients struggle with the disparity between their weakening minds and able bodies. They may want to continue to be independent and therefore dread being bathed by someone else. Letting the person bathe themselves when they can will go a long way to making them feel more comfortable and independent.
6. Talk. A lot.
A soothing voice is not only calming but also allows the person to know what you’re going to do next so that it doesn’t scare them when it comes. If they like to help bathe themselves, they’ll also probably need you to remind them what to do. Give them gentle instructions and keep them updated on everything you do as you’re doing it. Just be sure to avoid using a voice they may feel is condescending. As much as possible, talk to them like you would any other adult.
7. Don’t miss those hard-to-reach places.
We know there are some spots that are just awkward or difficult to bathe. We encourage you to be gentle and considerate but not to miss those areas, as they are often the most likely spots to cause trouble with odors or even infections. If the person is capable of washing those areas, let them do it. But one way or another, they have to get clean.
8. Sponge bathe in between baths.
The truth of the matter is that daily baths aren’t really necessary, particularly for people who don’t spend time sweating or doing outdoor activities. Try bathing the person only once every two or three days. Another option is to sponge bathe every day (or every other) and only bathe in a bathtub or shower once a week.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?