When Someone You Love Has Incontinence

Health Professional

Up until now, when discussing the social aspects of incontinence, I have addressed how to talk about your incontinence with your family and friends. But what do you do when a loved one has incontinence?

I hate to be crass, but we all know people who smell like urine, and at one time or another, we have all thought, "Don't they know what they smell like?"

For the most part, people are over-sensitive about their incontinence and worry that everyone can smell them, but most of the time, they don't. However, I am sure we all know someone like the person I am talking about.

I had a great-aunt who passed away some years ago, but in the last few years of her life, I imagine she became incontinent, or became debilitated enough that she could no longer keep herself clean enough, and she did smell like urine. I hated going to her house because everything smelled.

I think she stopped wearing pads, or at least changing them, and urine was likely soaking into some of her cushions. I said something to my mother about how we should say something but she thought my aunt would be mortified. I think she would have been mortified to know we didn't tell her. Most people don't know they have a bad odor when they do.

There is never a good way to approach something like this with someone. It is embarrassing, I know. But just imagine, if you were socially offensive, wouldn't you want someone to tell you. It's kind of like getting spinach stuck in your teeth and greeting a million people at a party, only to find the stowaway at the end of the night. Of course that has happened to me and I usually find my best friend and yell at her for not telling me. Her respond is "I didn't want to embarrass you."

So instead of being embarrassed for a minute or two from someone I know who cares about me, I was embarrassed for the whole night, and in front of some people who were very important professionally. Recognizing that incontinence is probably 10 fold more embarrassing, wouldn't you want to know?

I wish I had a good and fool proof way to approach your loved one. I try to think about what I would say to my aunt if given the chance. I run many different scenarios in my head, and few of them have a good outcome. I certainly can't title them, "and we all lived happily ever after" I do know that if someone came to me and said that I smelled like urine, I would hope that they not only had enough intestinal fortitude to say something, but I would hope they had an answer. Pointing out something that is perceived as embarrassing is much worse when there is no perceived way to fix it.

Probably the best thing is to ask about their overall health and see how he or she is feeling. I might say that I went to the doctor recently and we talked about incontinence, and you found out there were many ways to treat it. Another option is to bring up and interesting article or Web site you just stumbled across that they may find helpful. I can promise you that it may be a bit of an uncomfortable conversation for a little bit, but in the end, I think your loved one will be grateful, and possibly thank you. More likely, they will never bring it up again, but hopefully you will notice a change, and you will know that you did some good in the end. Good luck to you if this is something you have to do, and Happy New Year!!