Why do the elderly not want to bathe ?

by | Beginners Info, Personal Hygiene

As your parents get older you may be finding that they aren’t seeming to bathe very often, or that their clothes are, well, a bit wiffy. Or, perhaps you are their caregiver, and you know that they are bathing less, or are really resisting bathing very often. 

So, Why do the elderly not want to bathe ? There is no simple, “one size fits all”, answer to this, but there are lots of possible reasons  – Are they too tired ?  Scared of an accident in the bathroom ? Depressed ?  Bored and forgetting things due to an isolated and monotonous existence ? Memory issues ? Poor sight ? Dementia ? Afraid of loosing control ?

If they are not bathing, there is obviously a reason they are not enjoying it.

What can I do to help ?

As with so many things with your elderly loved ones, you are going to have to go slowly if you want to find out why they aren’t bathing more.

You don’t want to appear to be interfering, and you certainly don’t want your elderly parent to feel that you are hassling them to bathe, as they may feel that you are trying to take the control in the relationship from them, and will then resist your efforts to help them.

You need to let your loved one know that you are supporting them in maintaining their independence, not trying to take it away from them, and that you just want to know if there is any way that you can help them.

What are some of the possible reasons that they aren’t bathing ?

Cost

One very common reason that so many elderly people may not bathe is cost.

If money is tight, a person may simply forego on a bath, or a shower two or three times a week to save money.

Washing clothes is also expensive, so it may not be that your loved one isn’t bathing, they may just be doing the laundry less often to save money.

Everything takes too long

There is only so much time in the day, and when you are older and everything takes so much longer because you are going quite a lot more slowly, well, there just isn’t the time in the day to get everything done.

This all leads to our parents prioritizing what they feel they can get done.

So sometimes a shower or a bath gets put off for a day, or two.

Catching Cold

I read one post on Quora by an elderly gentleman, of 89 yrs, who said that he had to put on heaters, and still got cold trying to dry himself because he took an hour, and would have to get into bed to warm up and take a quick snooze.

I do remember that my father used to get cold when I showered him.

We would have a heater blowing in hot air through a slightly open door during the shower, and then a toweling bathrobe for him to put on straight away once he was out of the shower.

Finally going to sit on his bed on a towel to completely dry off, where we had also turned up the heating.

Lack of energy

Fatigue is a very significant factor in the lives of the elderly, as the body slows down.

Elderly parents who live alone, and aren’t very active, or who suffer from mobility issues, may have even less energy, as they are not getting exercise and improving their circulation.

This lack of energy leads to tasks like bathing becoming extremely taxing, and difficult for them.

They are psychologically beaten before they have begun.

This may vary from day to day, as it is greatly affected, at least in my mom’s case, by how well they have slept the night before.

Seniors are renowned with having trouble getting off to sleep, as their bodies just don’t require so much sleep as they get older.

And, if your loved one are anything like my mom, they get up to go to the bathroom several times a night, which breaks up the sleep pattern as well.

Fear

Along with decreased mobility and pain, can come a fear of using the bathroom should your loved ones slip.

Both before, and after, my mom’s hip replacement we had to work out how she would get into the shower etc as she was very worried about stepping up into the shower and then slipping.

We found that a zimmer frame was perfect. 

Once we had solved the problem Mom was back splashing around regularly !

I have a long article on bathroom safety with over 50 tips, and a large number of products which can help your loved ones reduce the risks in their bathroom. You will find it here.

Loss of dignity

If your loved one requires assistance with bathing they may be reluctant, as they feel it is undignified, to have to be helped.

All you can do here is to go slowly, and to make sure that you afford them all the privacy possible.

You need to ask them what they need you to do, and just stick to that if it’s possible. You can always allow them to cover up a little if that helps them feel better. With time everyone should adapt to the situation.

If they don’t, you may want to hire a professional to bathe them, if they are more comfortable with a female nurse for example, rather than their own child.

I know that my mom found it far less embarrassing, for her, when a lady nurse bathed her after her hip replacement, than the idea of me giving her a full bath (me too !).

So some adults may prefer a professional over their children washing them – you could be lucky !

Pain and Loss of mobility

With arthritis, osteoporosis, knee and hip problems pain can often be so debilitating that washing properly, or even getting into a tub can be very painful.

And it’s for this reason that a lot of older people have sponge baths, rather than trying to use the tub or shower.

Depression

Depression can be a factor for the elderly losing interest in bathing, just as with the young, or middle-aged, the elderly may lose interest in activities from which they once derived pleasure.

You will notice if your parents are no longer doing other important tasks, and have also lost interest in engaging in their usual hobbies.

If this is the case, they may be suffering from depression.

In which case you may need to consult with your parents doctor, before you do anything.

The reasons for depression can be many – it may simply be down to medications which they have been prescribed for other ailments, which may not be agreeing with them, or it may be that growing old scares them.

Your parents may be feeling isolated if family are not able to see them very often, or because they have lost a lot of their friends, which can lead to fears about their own mortality and isolation.

Memory Loss

I think this one is pretty self explanatory. A lot of seniors suffer from short-term memory loss, and may simply forget to shower.

It can be remedied by a chart which is put in a prominent position, and your parent can mark on it whether, or not, they have showered. Put it on the shower door, so they see it and remember to mark it !

Fear of losing control

If you have already been asking your parents about their bathing, or why they have let their personal hygiene go, and they persist in not bathing etc, it may simply be down to a fear of losing control.

You just need to “back off”, and not give them reason to build that wall of resistance. The best thing you can do is to ask them what they need you to do for them.

If you just try to support them, and not take over, this may work well if they are scared of loosing control.

You are simply helping them maintain their independence, and not as they may see it, trying to take it away.

Sight and hearing difficulties

With conditions where there is loss of sight and hearing, your loved one may be really struggling to get things done, as everything takes so much longer, and they have to take even more care not to fall or bump into anything.

I know that my mom, who has several eye conditions, including AMD, cannot see clearly to her immediate right, and often bumps into things, or knocks objects over due to a lack of peripheral vision. 

Changes in lighting can be another problem – Mom often feels off balance when she steps out of doors into even a dull light, as her eyes don’t adjust quickly enough, and it makes her feel a bit dizzy. Again, she just has to go more slowly, so things take far longer to complete than before.

My mom’s conditions aren’t severe, but they hamper and slow her down, and there just isn’t enough time for everything that needs to be done.

For many elderly people bathing can either take too long, or they feel it’s too dangerous, with the conditions they suffer from.

Loss of sense of smell

With age the senses will dull, and unfortunately some of our parents may simply not know that they smell a little pungent.

This combines with a bit of memory loss, forgetting to take a shower, and the monotony of one day blending into the next, and it can be a few days before it occurs to them to bathe again.

This, of course, is not about a lack of desire to take a shower, and is simply remedied by a schedule that they write down for washing, and maybe a call to remind them occasionally.

If your loved one wants to shower and is simply forgetting, they won’t dislike being reminded.

Cognative disorders

My father’s illness finally led to him developing some form of dementia, but I can’t say that he was any trouble at all when it came to showering, so I don’t want to pretend that I know a lot about this.

I found that you need to go very slowly with your loved one if they have dementia.

If they are resistant to bathing, and they really don’t want to, it’s best to break it down into something simpler.

Maybe a sponge bath, or just a wet cloth.

It can change form day to day, and you just have to go with the flow, and be gentle, as your parent may really have no idea about what is going on.

There will of course come a point where the help of professionals is needed.

How do I ask them why they aren’t bathing ?

As with everything else, you just go slowly, and you find some tactful way of letting them know they may need to bathe a bit more. 

Don’t bring attention to stains or soiling marks, as this can just embarrass your loved one.

You could just casually pretend to use their bathroom, and come back and ask them if they feel okay in their shower, or say that you would like to modify their bathtub, as you think it’s a little bit unsafe for them.

If you can see that they are lacking in mobility, or you know they have arthritis or some other problem, you can simply say you would like to help them get some piece of equipment to make it safe.

You can always open the door to your parent saying that they feel unsafe in the bathroom, and from there you can slowly start the conversation about how you can help them.

Once you have the conversation started, you will find out what the problems are.

If you find that they need help with bathing, you can try and make it fun, or spoil them a little with bath salts, scents, or get them a big thick towel bathrobe for when they step out.

Just remember that you are there to support them, and try to keep the tone very positive.

Do I need to check with their doctor ?

After your conversation with your loved ones, if things didn’t go well, and you suspect depression or dementia may be the cause of their resistance to bathing, it may be time to consult with their doctor to get some advice on your path forwards.

It may be the case that you are simply not equipped for the task, and that the doctor has other ideas that will help.

The doctor may recommend assisted living, or some other personal care arrangement as being necessary.

How often should the elderly bathe ?

It is perfectly okay for an elderly person to bathe only once or twice a week. Their skin is thinner than a younger person’s, and doesn’t produce the same amount of oils.

For this reason it is also a good idea to suggest that they use a mild or gentle soap, such as one for babies.

If they are only bathing once a week they should have a partial wash each day of the private areas, and maybe under their arms and their faces.

Incontinence

Incontinence is the exception to the rule here. If your loved one is incontinent they should not be left sitting wet or otherwise. If they have wet themselves they need to be washed, dried, and have clean dry clothing.

If they are doubly incontinent, I think it goes without saying that if they have soiled themselves they need to be throughly cleaned, and have a fresh change of everything.

Ladies are particularly susceptible to UTI’s, and should always clean themselves wiping backwards.

Is there an alternative to bathing in bathtubs and showers ?

If bathing is really causing great distress, or if your loved one has mobility issues associated with a lot of pain which are exacerbated by using the tub, or the shower, then a sponge bath or a flannel bath is a perfectly good alternative. 

You can also mix it up a little and have a proper shower, or bath sometimes, and other times have a sponge bath, if they aren’t having a good day. You have to remember to be flexible.

Can I help them to set up a routine ?

Setting up a routine can make things a lot easier.

It causes less disruption if you are giving the help with bathing, as your loved ones will know when to expect you.

At the outset, you must try to let them choose when they wish to do the bathing.

If you aren’t doing the bathing with them, just get them to write down the schedule and to try to stick to it.

Do they want assistance ?

At the time that you discuss with you parents why they aren’t bathing, you will be asking them what you can do for them.

This is the time to find out if they want you, or a professional caregiver, to help them with bathing, or simply someone present at the time they bathe.

Your parent may just want you to be in the next room if they get into trouble.

When you ask them, you simply say “Do you need me to help you in any way ?”, and you let them take the lead, and to tell you what they would like, and need.

This way they don’t feel as though they are being pushed, and they will be more likely to accept the change.

If they want assistance what do I do ?

You do not want to start taking over, you want to let them guide you as to their needs, and you have to do it all at there speed.

If you feel embarrassed helping them to bathe, try not to show it too much, as it will just get more and more awkward, and if it doesn’t go well you will find your loved ones resisting even more, and using the bad experience to reinforce their position.

I have years of experience in this with my parents, and I have an article discussing how to make bathing easier for your elderly parent here.

The main thing is to take it slowly and to make everything comfortable.

I can’t help them, what do I do ?

If you can’t help your loved one, and there can be many reasons why, you will need to consider whether they need carers, or to move into some form of assisted living.

It can be unrealistic for a family to believe that they can continue to cope with their their elderly loved one’s needs, and that they can continue living relatively independently.

So, although it can be difficult, and you may feel as though you are failing in some way, if this is the case the best thing for your parent may be to live in some form of assisted living facility, with the right number of people around to assist them.

Alternatively, you can look at “Personal Care Attendant Plans” if your loved one is eligible for Medicaid.

These are Medicaid State PCA Plans, which are a form of funding where the beneficiary has need of help with daily living tasks due to some kind of disability or functional impairment.

These programs vary by state, and so does who is eligible, but they can pay for caregivers in the home for daily living tasks.

Good luck and remember to take it all slowly.

I’m Gareth and I’m the owner of Looking After Mom and Dad.com

I have been a caregiver for over 10 yrs and share all my tips here.

Gareth Williams

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Why do the elderly not want to bathe ?
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There is no simple answer to this, but there are lots of possible reasons, and you need to know how to work out which it is, how to talk about it, and how to help your parents.
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Lookingaftermomand dad.com