Shifting into the role of caregiver for elderly parents is one of the most difficult life transitions many of us will ever face. No matter how old we are, there’s a part of us that hangs onto the role of a child, and isn’t comfortable having to take over finances; move mom into our home; or even tell dad he can no longer drive. When personal hygiene starts to become an issue, whether because of cognitive decline, decreased mobility, or other factors, the caregiver role can extend into areas that are even more awkward – and often downright embarrassing. If you’ve had to take on the role of helping an elderly relative with bathing and self care, there are some strategies that can help all parties feel more comfortable.
Before You Start
If resistance to bathing is an issue, think about incentives to get the process started more smoothly. If Dad’s favorite thing is to go bowling, or he loves a trip to Dairy Queen, make a plan to head out – but on the condition he gets cleaned up first. Schedule Mom’s shower for Sunday morning before church, when she’ll want to look her best.
Prepare the bathroom ahead of time. Make sure there are no rugs or mats on the floor that Dad could trip on, and clear a safe bath to the shower or tub. Ideally, you should have grab bars installed and a shower chair set up to prevent falls (head here for more safety tips). Test any water temperature yourself before Dad comes anywhere near the shower. Make sure the room is toasty warm, as elderly have trouble maintaining body temperature. Have all your materials ready ahead of time, and don’t forget to set out a towel and robe for afterwards, to respect Dad’s modesty and keep him from getting chilled.
When It’s Shower Time
Adopt a relaxed and confident demeanor. While feelings of awkwardness are normal, they’re apt to dissipate the more natural you’re able to act. And you’ll be sparing mom both your embarrassment and hers. Keep the conversation flowing with topics that are light and distracting – plans for the day, last night’s Red Sox game, etc.
Let Mom do as much self-care as she’s able to safely. It’s important to let your parent “own” as much of the process as possible, to maintain a sense of independence and purpose. Offer clear prompts when necessary (“Time to get that hair washed”) but let her perform whatever tasks she can, even if they take a little longer to complete.
Don’t sweat the hair washing. Elderly people – particularly those with dementia – can get very anxious having their hair washed. Step one, as always, is to stay calm. Test all water temps first, making sure to avoid extreme hot or cold. Use baby shampoo to minimize eye discomfort, and use a handheld shower attachment if possible. And if you’re having trouble managing mom’s agitation, no big deal – just wrap things up and try again another day.