Tips to Help Someone with Dementia Bathe

Carol Bradley Bursack | Apr 28th 2016

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Bathing issues can be one of the most frustrating parts of dementia care, but a caregiver can lower stress with flexibility and insight. Here are some expert caregiver tips to consider when planning out bathing times for your loved one.

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Change the frequency

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Although your loved one may need a good deal of washing on the hands, face and private areas, a daily bath or shower is rarely necessary - once or twice a week should be enough. The idea is to not be so rigid in your thinking when it comes to bathing. In many cases, large bathing cloths can be used on the full body.

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Bribery sometimes works

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In earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, people can sometimes be bribed into taking a bath. The caregiver might say, “We’ve both got to get cleaned up so we can get haircuts and then stop for ice cream.” This may not work every time, and the approach will likely lose its charm as the disease progresses, but it’s worth a try. Some caregivers find cooperation with this approach long into the disease because they’ve learned to make bath time unthreatening and comfortable early on. For others, the time that this works is limited even under the best circumstances.

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Let them know what you are doing

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Talk soothingly as you make each move toward cleaning up. Tell your mom, “I’m going to unbutton your blouse now,” or, “Now we’ll put on your warm robe.” Even if just washing up after eating, let her know you are going to wipe off her mouth before you up the washcloth to her face. Explaining what you are doing helps avoid shock and a startled response. The sound of your voice will also likely be reassuring.

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Create a comfortable atmosphere

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Anything from the time of day, to room and water temperature can make or break the feeling of bath time being pleasant and refreshing. Older people tend to become chilly more easily than younger people. Warm the rooms, make sure the water is neither too hot or cold, and set a soothing atmosphere with calming music or soft lights. If one time of day does not work, let it go, there will always be other times to try again.

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Choose your battles

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As with nearly everything dementia related, arguing won’t help. Yes, your loved one needs to be kept reasonably clean, but knowing when to let things go helps everyone stay calmer. If your loved one has a medical appointment and so far it’s been an all around bad day, don’t add bathing to the mix. Doctors will understand, just do the best that you can with cleanliness for the day.

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Keep your mood quiet and loving

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If your loved one is fighting the process, it’s better to give up and do something else entirely. You won’t win. Even if you managed to force a bath, you’ll likely have a worse battle the next time you attempt the process. Be sure to also keep your frustration low. You may bite your tongue but even your body language can show frustration. For both of your sakes, don’t overvalue the need for a full bath.

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Consider their need for control and modesty

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Think about what it would be like to have water coming down on your head and you don’t understand what’s happening. Using a bathing chair and hand held shower head can make things less scary. People with dementia are already heartbreakingly vulnerable, so you may also consider a bathing gown, or letting your loved one cover up with a washcloth or small towel.  In addition, let them help whenever possible.

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Hire in-home bath help

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Some people feel more modest, and are less apt to cooperate with a family member than with someone they consider official staff. I’ve seen cases where a paid caregiver comes to the home and gets cooperation for a bath when a family member couldn’t make it work. That’s okay, go with the flow and if this works for you, hire someone for an hour a week. It may not work for everyone but does for some.

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The takeaway

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Bathing is just one more instance when the caregiver has to put him or herself in the place of the person living with the disease. Imagine having someone undress you while scolding you for not cooperating, cold water sprayed on you when you’re already chilly, or strangers giving you such intimate care. I’d imagine you wouldn’t like that very much. Giving choices, validating feelings, calm atmospheres not over emphasizing can go a long way in making the process easier.