Why Clinics Need Unisex Bathrooms for Elders and Caregivers

  • "But I have to go to the bathroom," Dad said as he squirmed anxiously in his wheelchair.

    "You're wearing a pad, Dad," I said. "You can just go. There's no way for me to take you to the bathroom."

    "You want me to wet my pants? No! I can't. Take me to the bathroom," he insisted.


    Dad and I were in the middle of one of our long waits to see the dermatologist. We did this often to keep his skin cancers at bay. I'd pick him up at the nursing home and we'd ride the para-transit bus, as Dad needed a wheelchair outside the nursing home environment (and sometimes in it).


    He wasn't totally incontinent, and the nursing home didn't want people to get dependent on protective pads unless they really needed them. Because of this, he wasn't used to the idea of wearing a pad other than at night, and his dementia stood in the way of comprehending the situation we were in.

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    A doctor's visit would always bring on the need for him to go to the bathroom, even though he'd gone just before we left. There were a couple of obstacles here, the least of which being that he needed a walker to balance on when he got up from his chair, plus one strong, trained aide and sometimes two, to keep him from falling.


    The other problem is one that I hope clinics will someday solve. While I'd long since made peace with the modesty issue of taking my dad to the bathroom and he showed no embarrassment, this was a public building. He was a man. I'm a woman. I couldn't take him into the women's bathroom as you might a little boy. I couldn't go into the men's room, and he certainly couldn't go alone. The clinic was not staffed to handle these situations, thus the incontinency pad was used as a back up.


    The pad seems like a logical solution to the problem, however logic doesn't work with dementia. With the long waits in clinics, it's no surprise that Dad would have to go to the bathroom, Heck, I sometimes had to decide if I could safely leave him in his chair while I made a mad dash to the women's bathroom. Those waits get long.


    However, to Dad, whose dignity was already teetering on the edge of an abyss, the idea of "wetting his pants" was not acceptable. The fact that he was equipped with a "diaper," rather than reassuring him, just made him angry.


    So, there we sat, arguing like a couple of six year olds. "You can go in your pants." "No I can't."  "Yes you can. I can't take you into a bathroom." "Why not?" "Because I can't go into the men's room and I can't take you to the ladies room" On and on with no solution.


    The result would be that he'd wet the pad and not even realize it. He then didn't have to go, so he forgot about the issue and we were okay until we got through with the doctor. By then, both of us, exhausted from the whole ordeal, headed back by bus to his room at the nursing home.  His wonderful aide would made sure he was clean and dry, we'd get him settled in his bed or chair, whichever he chose, and I would leave to go visit the other elders in my care.


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    My heart broke for Dad when we went through this. He could not understand why I wouldn't do such a simple thing as take him to the bathroom, since I did it regularly at the nursing home. He could not understand why I was telling him to wet his pants. He would not accept that he was wearing protection and this was a practical solution to an infuriating problem.


    If this happened once, or if this was just a problem Dad and I had, it wouldn't be such a huge issue. But sons with mothers, daughters with fathers, well spouses with ailing spouses all have endured this. If I could ask for a show of hands from readers, I'd venture to say a good percentage of you have had to cope with this issue in some form.


    Long doctor waits aren't going to go away. Extra nurses or aides to help with our elders aren't soon going to be hanging around clinic waiting rooms just in case we need them. I'm too realistic to expect such miracles. But how about a unisex bathroom for adults? A bathroom with a couple of stalls large enough for a wheelchair and walker combination would be ideal. If this is a modesty or legal issue, then just bathroom with a single high-rise stool with safety bars would do.


    It may seem like a small issue to a clinic, but to caregivers and their already stressed care receivers who populate doctor's waiting rooms across the nation would be extremely grateful for a solution. That we have much else to worry about is true. But it would have added greatly to my dad's dignity and my sanity if I could have just said, "Sure, Dad, let's go." A trip to the bathroom can mean a lot.


    For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.  

Published On: September 01, 2009