My Parent Won’t Shower or Change Clothes. What Should I Do?

180 Comments

The issue of elders who were once reasonably clean adults refusing to take showers and wear fresh clothes is one that is far more common than most people think.

Sometimes the issue is depression. If we have a parent who no longer takes an interest in staying clean or wearing clean clothes, it's wise to look at depression first. A checkup with a doctor is a good idea, especially if low energy is also part of it, or if they just don't care about anything at all. Depression isn't always obvious to an observer.

Another factor is control. As people age, they lose more and more control over their lives. But one thing they generally can control is dressing and showers. The more they are nagged, the more they resist. "This younger generation is trying to take over everything. Well, they aren't telling me when to shower, that's for sure. Besides, I'm just fine!"

A third issue is a decreased sense of sight and smell. What your nose picks up as old sweat, they don't even notice. Not on themselves. Not on their mate. Their senses are not as acute as yours, or as theirs once were.

A fourth cause is memory. The days go by. They aren't marked with tons of activities as they were when they were young. If there isn't something special about Wednesday, well – it could be Tuesday or Thursday. They simply lose track of time and don't realize how long it's been since they showered.

Also, working in with memory is the fact that many of our elders didn't bathe or shower every day when they grew up. We now take daily bathing for granted in this country, but when our parents were young, a weekly bath was likely more the norm. They may have gotten into a more frequent bathing habit in their last decades, but their brain is taking them into the past. Once a week, it's bath time. Then, they forget what day it is, or even forget when they last took a bath or changed clothes. Time just slides by.

Another big issue can be fear or discomfort. Fear of slipping in the tub. Discomfort trying to get in and out. More serious is when a person with Alzheimer's or dementia is in the bathroom and doesn't understand why there is water running on them, or believes the drain that may suck them down. They just don't understand what you are trying to "do to them."

Why Won't Elderly Parents Bathe?

Okay. So what do you do about it?

This is a case where compromise is essential. Third parties can also help. While my mother-in-law was still in her apartment, she didn't remember to bathe and didn't change her clothes, though she'd look me in the eye and say she had. And she believed she had.

Some of this was memory. She thought she must have taken a bath somewhere along the line, so she said she did. However, I feel much of it was fear. She was afraid of the shower. She was afraid of getting in the tub. She was confused by it all. Denial was easier.

Also, she was an exceptionally modest woman, even for her generation. I knew that she didn't want a family member helping her take a bath. Far too intimate. Our "solution" was to get an in-home care agency to come in for the sole purpose of a bath. That effort was better than nothing, but only moderately successful. She grudgingly let "the girl" give her a shower the first time. I stayed in the apartment, but in the other room. Then, a different woman showed up the second time. My mother-in-law refused to let the home health worker in the house. She slammed the door and that was that. No luck. We tried again. She gave in that time, but it was touch and go. So it went.

This behavior came from a woman who was typically very mild-mannered. She was sweet and gentle and not one to "act out," as they say. The fourth time the agency sent someone, a woman of another race came to the door and my mother-in-law, who had never shown anything but love for others, suddenly became a bigot. She grew up in an area where everyone was rather generic in looks. I think her mind was back there, and she didn't understand a woman from another country coming to her door and wanting to give her a bath.

Actually, it's all understandable. I wouldn't want a stranger coming to the door and telling me he or she is going to give me a bath. But caregivers need to do something, and often an in-home agency can be a good choice. Some agencies are more careful than others about the consistency of caregivers. That helps immensely, as then that person arriving means "bath time," and if the person's memory isn't too bad, they may even remember the caregiver who arrives. But we weren't so fortunate.

Thankfully, a room at the nursing home we were waiting for opened up, and when my mother-in-law settled in there, she grew more comfortable, and baths were no longer a problem. It was part of the routine.

Ways to Convince a Senior Parent to Bathe

There are different approaches to take, once you've figured out why bathing is such a big deal. If a doctor finds the elder is depressed and antidepressants work, the problem may solve itself. A renewed interest in life may make the person more aware of needing (or wanting) a shower or bath and clean clothes. Energy may increase and that, too, helps.

If you find you are in a power struggle with the elder refusing to be "bossed around," a little trickery can come in handy. If the elder has a good friend, it sometimes works to get the friend to give a call and say, "Hey, Mable. Shower up and put on your newest outfit. We need to go out and have lunch." A reason to get cleaned up for someone besides family, coupled by an "I don't care what you smell or look like if you don't" attitude by the son or daughter, can sometimes do the trick.

If you can still get them in the shower, but they are afraid of the water (or sitting in the tub), there are many types of shower chairs available. These are wise for anyone who is getting older or who may have arthritis or balance problems, as it decreases the risk of falls. A hand-held shower head helps a lot with the fear factor if the person doesn't have water pouring down from overhead.

However, if the person is in a demented state and afraid in the bath, then you or another person must move gently. Don't insist on a shower or bath. Begin with just asking to wipe off the person's face. Gradually move to under arms and other parts of the body, talking and telling them what you are doing, as you go. Be soothing. If they fight it or say stop, then stop. Try again later. You may at least get to a stage where there is an occasional sponge bath.

The thing to remember about cleanliness is that you may have to lower your standards. It's hard. You know that at one time Mom would have been humiliated if she didn't smell good, or had stains on her clothes. That part of you, due to kindness, wants to take over and have her look like she'd have wanted to look.

The other part, though, is that she is now in a different mode. Too much nagging is counterproductive. If Mom isn't as sweet smelling as you'd like, or if Dad has stains on his shirt because he spills – well you all may have to live with it. Constant arguing about cleanliness and clothes can make the person feel belittled, and that won't help at all. They will not take it as love. They will take it a criticism. So, compromise may be in order.

The main message? Outsiders understand better than you think they do. Do your best to help your elders look nice and stay clean. But don't expect a pristine appearance. It's often not realistic, and the issue may be more about your own ego than about the elder. Think it through, be honest with yourself, and find a way to live with what you must. It's once again attitude adjustment time.

Carol Bradley Bursack

Follow this author

Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Visit Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!

180 Comments

My dad was living on his own and refused to take a shower even though his shower was handicap accessible. He then went into a nursing home for a few months where he also refused to take a shower. Since then I moved him in with me and found several reasons why showering on his own or in the nursing home wasn't working out for him.
First, a lot had to do with ability - he was not able to manage the hand held shower head and maintain his balance on his own.
Second, it was his condition - he had open vascular sores on his legs and feared getting his legs wet.
Third, it was having strangers at the home help him. He didn't feel comfortable.
Once at my home, my dad still refuses to get in the shower. But I have found a solution that DorthyRN hit right on the head.
I bathe my dad daily while he is on the toilet.
His skin is very thin and prone to sores, so a light washing works best for him. I use a no rinse soap and sometimes regular soap and a spray bottle too. I installed a toilet-bidet right onto my existing toilet to clean his tushy after every bowel movement. I use no rinse shampoo and sometimes regular shampoo and a spray bottle to wash his hair. It isn't as messy as I thought, and it only takes a short time. I only clean his upper torso this way.
He gets undressed and redressed on the toilet too.
I only clean his upper torso from the toilet. I clean his legs and feet afterward when I put on his socks and shoes.
The whole process takes about 30 minutes a day. Not much time, just a little patience and thinking outside the box...
when I first started going to my parent's home to care for my Mom she refused to shower. She has dementia but was still able to converse then, She made it very Clear no one was Coming in her house telling her what to do. always using a conversational tone of Voice was helpful. Even when she Might become belligerent even slapping me a couple of times. I learned to Never ask her if she wanted a shower, Never ask her to take to a shower. Never to TELL her to take a shoWer. IN fact never use the word Shower at all. I behaved as Though it were a matter of course ' . The shower is directly in front
of the toilet ' While she was on the Toilet I'd put a towel down onto the floor and turn the water on "to warm it up in here. Just before she stood I put a towel on the Shower chair so it would feel warm and dry when she sat -When she stood I opened the Shower door and Said," Now you Can sit here in this nicewarm Spot." Usually she did. Sometimes she refused but I never backed downIt is a small bathroom and I was able to stand in Such a way that she could only move forward into the Shower. Nearly always she simply did because right in front of her is a Warm chair - and her Knees hurt. About 5 or 6 times she got belligerent ' When I was new at this I tried to reason- which I learned in the Alzheimer world is really only arguing because there is no reason, Regrettably I yelled once. That made things substantially worse' I tried theats but once again' that is just arguing. So I learned to just Shut up or be VERY Conversational yet firm, "I Know you want to sit down. You Can sit down There." She might yell WHY WHY WHY like a 3 yrold ' I learned not to engage this behavior but rather answer only once. "I am not talking about this, You can sit down there. " and then Keep my mouth shut.
Like I said these episodes were the exception and I worked very hard on keeping my voice and behavior the Same as if she were just being pleasant.I wanted pleasant to be What she associated with the process.
Also I ALWAYS did the shower everyday I was There.My niece Only did showers when she thought Mom needed one and she had a LOT more arguments.I do a shower every every every day I am there because it is routine that makes Alzheimer's Copable. It worked because this is 3 years later and although the dementia is much worse she always takes a shower, never argues about it ' and Very much enjoys it.

Oh also I Turn the water off while she is getting in. Once she Is in the chair I hold a towell over the nozzle- tell her I am turning it on -"You may feel some drips ' "Now it's warm." "Here it comes"
I helped an adult son with his mother as she declined drastically. She had been virtually a recluse for yrs. when i moved here & did not know. Since he did some chores for me I would occasioanally drop by with some treats for them....so she got used to me, & was too polite to throw me out, which she did with family. When she was hospitalized & could only come home if she got homecare, I was the one whom she'd allow. I bought flannel backed large table cloth at grocery store, covered her bed, she laid on the flannel side, with a sheet over her & i washed & lotioned one small part at a time. Keeping me eyes on her face as i chatted about my gardens, the birds etc. kept her dignity in place. She did her own private area the best she could. We all like being massaged & pampered so even washing her hair with a pretty wet face cloth worked as she lay there. While I went to empty the basin & put facecloth & hand towels into the laundry after sitting her up, she pulled the nittie over her head & was dressed enough to be transferred to a chair while i removed the table cloth & got her bed rolled down. I don't want to see people naked as much as they don't want to be seen. AND ALWAYS WERE GLOVES to make it FEEL LESS PERSONAL.