Incontinence, the loss of bladder control can be an embarrassing issue, but it is also an extremely common problem among elderly people. At least 1 in 10 people age 65 or older deals with incontinence. Symptoms range from mild leaking of urine to chronic uncontrollable wetting.

What is Bladder Control?

The body stores urine in the bladder. During urination, muscles in the bladder contract or tighten forcing urine out of the bladder and into a tube called the urethra that carries urine out of the body. At the same time, muscles surrounding the urethra relax and let the urine pass through. Spinal nerves control how these muscles move. Incontinence occurs if the bladder muscles contract or the muscles surrounding the urethra relax without warning or control.

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What Causes Incontinence?

Although aging does not cause incontinence, it is more likely to occur in older people. Incontinence can occur for many reasons. Some of those reasons cause bladder control problems that are reversible. Other, more progressive conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's cause chronic incontinece. Although not directly responsible for loss of bladder control, arthritis and age-related conditions that impact mobility cause functional incontinence. In this instance, loss of bladder control occurs because of confusion or painful, slow walking which interferes with the ability to get to the bathroom in time.

Reasons for loss of bladder control:

  • Vaginal infections
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Overactive bladder muscles
  • Blockage from an enlarged prostate
  • Medication interactions
  • Damage to nerves that control the bladder from diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease
  • Diseases such as arthritis that make walking to the bathroom painful or slow
  • Confusion regarding the toileting process because of cognitive decline
  • Loss of awareness of the need to urinate due to dementia or Alzheimer's

Diagnosing Incontinence

Many people with bladder control problems hide the problem from everyone, even from their doctor. The social consequences of incontinence can be devastating, leading to embarrassment, isolation and depression. In most cases, incontinence can be treated and controlled, if not cured. If your parent is having bladder control problems, they don't have to suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about diagnosing incontinence.

The doctor will give your parent a physical exam and take their medical history. The doctor will ask about your elder's symptoms and the medicines he/she uses. The doctor will want to know if your elderly parent has been sick recently or had surgery.

Your doctor also may do a number of continence tests. These might include urine and blood tests and tests that measure how well your mom or dad empties the bladder. In addition, your doctor may ask you to keep a daily diary of when your parent urinates and when they leak urine. Their pattern of urinating and urine leakage may suggest which type of incontinence your elderly parent has.

Discussing Incontinence

To overcome reluctance, help your elderly parent educate themselves on incontinence, know that it's common as people grow older -- and assure them that doctors have seen it all before! Discussing incontinence with caregivers and medical professions is the first step toward managing the problem.

Sources:National Association for Continence,