Talking to our parents about such personal things as hygiene is never very easy, but it’s sometimes a bullet that you just can’t dodge. And if they are having problems looking after themselves, you need to know, so you can help them maintain their independence.
How to tell your elderly parent they smell? You don’t just flat out tell your elderly parent that they smell. There may be any number of reasons for this, and you need to do a little detective work to see if there are any obvious reasons for a lapse in personal cleanliness.
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Nonenal – What is it ?
I was very surprised to discover, firstly from an article by agingcare.com, that there was an actual chemical compound in body odor that the elderly produce in greater amounts, than in earlier life. The chemical tends to be start appearing on the skin at around age 40, and the amount may increase as we age. This chemical compound is responsible for what many people describe as “old person smell”.
The chemical compound is called 2-nonenal. The science behind its production involves lipid acid, which is a fatty acid produced in the sebaceous gland. When lipid acid is oxidized, 2-nonenal is produced. As people get older, there is greater oxidation of lipid acid on the skin and the production of more 2-nonenal.
Nonenal has a grassy or greasy odor. Because it is a fatty acid and not water-soluble, Nonenal is not easily removed with soap and water, and is not the result of poor washing habits.
The odor may not be so easy to detect on a person’s skin, but it will linger on fabrics, so will make clothes and bed linen smell more.
Nonenal is different from our more regular body odor, which comes from our water based sweat, and the bacterial breakdown of its compounds.
The production of Nonenal can increase with age, and there can be a build up on the skin, and unlike sweat, it won’t come off with even the most insistent water and soap scrubbing.
Nonenal has been known to the Japanese for some time, and they have methods for eliminating the odor. They have discovered that soaps with Persimmon Extract will immediately remove 97% of the Nonenal.
The Japanese also combine this with drinking Green Tea, which has powerful anti-oxidants, and this can help to stop the lipid acids being oxidized so easily on the skin.
The source on agingcare.com – https://www.agingcare.com/articles/old-person-smell-174839.htm
The source for the information on the 2-nonenal comes from an article in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology Volume 116, Issue 4, April 2001, Pages 520 -524. Here is the online article url – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022202X15411984
How do you talk to your mom or dad about their personal hygiene ?
Before you say anything about the fact that your loved one has started to develop strong body odor, it’s a good idea to have a look at some other reasons why they may be having problems with their personal hygiene.
Why isn’t your loved one washing ?
- depression – losing interest in even most basic activities due to depression
- dementia – if your loved one is suffering from any form of cognitive disorder, they can even forget how to wash
- lack of social contact – if your parent isn’t going out anymore socializing, they may not feel that they need to keep up their personal hygiene
- memory loss – most adults start to suffer from some memory loss at some stage and may forget to do things
- cost – if your parents lost a lot of their pensions in the financial crash they may have very limited resources and the cost of bathing and laundries may be to great, and they may have no choice other than to cut back
- anxiety and fear – your loved one may be scared of a fall in the bathroom
- pain – getting into the bath, or shower, may just be too painful, or maybe they can’t get down the stairs to the washer and drier to do the laundry
- lack of dexterity or strength in the hands – arthritis or a simple lack of strength can make it too hard for your loved ones to wash themselves regularly
- fatigue – this is a big one, and I saw it a lot with my father, and now with my mom; the elderly just don’t have the energy they once did
- loss of dignity – if your loved one needs help they may just not be asking as they think it’s undignified
- fear of loss of control – our aging parents may not want to ask for help even when they need it, as they feel it’s the beginning of the slippery slope to a loss of control in their lives
- the senses dull with age – your parent’s sense of smell may not be so good, and they just don’t realize
- cold – as the elderly are a lot slower getting around, it is very common for them to catch cold when bathing, and this can put them off – I used to have to go very quickly when helping my father, and I also had to have a fan heater constantly blowing in hot air as I helped him shower
In my article “Why do the elderly not want to bathe ?”, I go into this part of the subject in far greater depth.
How do you start the conversation with your parent about their hygiene ?
I would say that, firstly, you don’t tell your loved one that they smell.
You are going to have to go slowly, as with almost everything with older loved ones. You don’t want to offend them, as this will doubtless not get any of the kinds of results you are looking for. Embarrassing our parents is only going to make them get very defensive.
If you know that your parent has one of the types of health issues, anxieties, or financial worries that I mentioned above, you can just start by talking about that.
You are looking for a way to gently lead in to the conversation.
I have mentioned in other articles about maybe taking a look in their bathroom, and afterwards just saying to them that it looks a little dangerous, or how do they feel in their shower, or their bathtub.
You have to see how they respond, and if they say they are having troubles, then you can expand and suggest helping them with buying some safety items to make them feel less anxious.
Perhaps they are doing their laundry in the basement, and it is getting too difficult for them to get down the stairs – or you just don’t like them going down there.
You can just offer to do their laundry, and if you don’t have to, don’t mention them going down to the basement. Just take the laundry each time, and you don’t even have to say why.
I’m sure eventually you can find some way of asking the question.
Should you try a little bribery ?
If you feel that your parent isn’t keeping up with their hygiene because they are bored, or not socializing, you can organize some kind of lunch or afternoon which they can get fixed up for. And if they don’t get cleaned up, it’s an opportunity to ask them why not.
The motivation of going out may be just what it takes to get your loved one a little excited and to put a spring back in their step.
Where else can you get help ?
I read a great tip on Quora from a lady who was looking after the elderly, and she always advised the children to call on the friends of their parents, to give them a little help.
If you don’t feel that you have the relationship with your parents where you can talk to them about their body odor, then you can always talk to a close friend of theirs, and this will often be enough to do the trick. Your parent will not take offense in the same way with a friend. As they will with their own children, who they may feel are over-reacting, or interfering.
How can you help your parent with their personal hygiene ?
If you discover that your parent is having trouble dealing with their personal hygiene on their own, and consents to having you help, you must firstly ask them what it is that they need you to do for them.
It’s paramount that they understand that you are only there to follow instructions, and to assist in the ways that they want you to.
Take it slowly and –
- ask your parent exactly what they would like you to help them with
- set up a schedule for when you are going to do this – and in as far as it is possible, you need to let your loved one say when it will be and how frequently
- are there ways of making the bathroom safer, so that maybe they can still do most of the things without your actual hands on help
- prepare the bathroom for your parent so that everything is laid out ahead
- try and make it fun, and, or luxurious – maybe get some of their favorite bath products
- if you are embarrassed, don’t let them know as it will just make it worse
- give them the option of doing everything they can for themselves
- don’t talk too quickly, or move too quickly, as they may not hear you or be able to move quickly enough, and may end up getting frustrated
- all products they are using should be in easy reach for them to avoid falling, or slipping, when trying to get things
- remember to ask them what the next step you are doing will be, as this will allow them to lead the way, and there won’t be any surprises
To learn more about how you can help your parents to bathe, and the approaches to take, you can read “36 Caregiver tips: How to make bathing easier for the elderly ?”
Remember to go slowly, and don’t be blunt about your parent’s hygiene and body odor. Before you say or do anything, try to find out what may be the causes for their stronger body odor. Find out why they may not be washing properly.
And if you have to help your loved with their personal hygiene you should let them take the lead, and make sure that they know that you are simply trying to help them maintain their independence, and not trying to interfere.
Always strive to help your loved ones to maintain their dignity, and the results will be so much more enjoyable for all concerned.
I’m Gareth, the author and owner of Looking After Mom and Dad.com
I have been a caregiver for over 10 yrs and share all my tips here.