Family caregivers do everything in their power to keep their aging loved ones safe and healthy. Unfortunately, our elders sometimes put up a fight when we try to get them to participate in their own care. One routine task that gives many family caregivers grief is hand-washing.
As a person ages, their energy levels and attention to detail may decline, especially when it comes to hygiene habits. Someone who was once fastidious about their appearance and keeping a clean home may no longer bathe regularly or keep up with even basic household chores. While bath aides, no-rinse bathing products and housekeeping services can help keep an elder and their environment clean, there is no substitute for good hand hygiene.
Regular hand-washing is a crucial part of infection control, but many seniors either don’t wash up properly (e.g. just rinsing their hands with water and not using soap) or skip this personal care task altogether. Dirty hands can spread bacteria and viruses that cause gastrointestinal illnesses and respiratory infections like the common cold, influenza (flu) and coronavirus (COVID-19).
Someone who follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for hand hygiene may wash their hands upwards of 10 times a day. In contrast, some seniors refuse to wash their hands at all—even after using the restroom. This significantly increases the risk that you, your loved one and any other people they interact with might get sick. At the very least, elders should wash their hands after toileting, before eating or preparing food, and after returning home from outings. Remember, hand sanitizers can be a convenient option in a pinch, but visibly dirty hands always need soap and running water to get clean.
Getting a senior to do something they don’t want to do is no easy task, especially if dementia is a factor. Fortunately, veteran family caregivers have shared the following tips and tricks for getting a senior to wash their hands.
How to Get a Senior to Wash Their Hands
“I know my mom sometimes becomes annoyed at me when I remind her of things. Maybe instead of telling a senior to use soap, just squirt some directly onto their hands. They won’t feel like they’re being treated like a child and you get to see them use soap.” –NeedHelpWithMom
“I’d try getting right at the sink at the same time as your loved one. Squirt soap in your own hands and quickly wash theirs with yours. You can say your hands needed cleaning, too. You can also say you really like that particular soap, that you want to enjoy the smell of it anytime you can, and that it’s a nice part of washing hands. The main thing I can think of is to ‘do’ whenever you can instead of talking or making a lesson out of it.” –Zdarov
“I had a client who never cleaned his hands. So, we gave him wipes or a soapy cloth for his hands (do what works for your set up). Don’t say a word—just give your loved one the tools. They can care for themselves, and then you take it away when they’re done. Don’t say anything. Less is best; it helps preserve their dignity. We also got into the habit of using Lysol wipes in the evenings to wipe down the things that we knew he would touch during the day to keep germs to a minimum.” –Lizhappens
“I bought Norwex hand towels for my mom. They have BacLock, an antibacterial agent, in the cloths. If she didn’t use soap, at least I knew when Mom dried her hands that it disinfected them.” –Eyeopener
“Warm, pre-soaped wipes seem like the best idea. Just lie in wait outside the bathroom door armed with your wipes and gloves and pounce. Once that task is finished, keep your gloves on and wipe down everything in the bathroom your loved one may have touched. At mealtimes, be ready with the soapy wipes before food is served. Your loved one might not like it, but you may feel a little better.” –Veronica91
“I ask my partner for his help. I tell him in an adult voice that I have a problem and I need his assistance to solve it. I ask him to help me by letting me wash his hands with hot water and soap. At first, he resisted, but now, since he feels that he’s helping me, he is willing to wash his hands. Over the last month, I have asked for his help with many things like brushing his teeth, taking a shower and changing his clothes.” –anonymous876935
“My husband and I constantly reminded his mom to her to wash her hands when she lived with us. It was even worse when she was in a public restroom. I would just lead her to the sink and either point out the soap or just tell her to put her hands under the dispenser. It was very frustrating for me because I am a big believer in washing your hands. Just do your best and realize that you can only do so much!” –cadigirl55
“The only way I can get my mother (who has Alzheimer’s) to do anything she stubbornly resists is to tell her that three doctors said she has to do such and such. When she was officially diagnosed, there were three doctors in the ER and that’s what she remembers as part of her ‘breakdown’—that these doctors said she has to change her lifestyle overall in many ways. If I don’t say this, she will fight me tooth and nail on some things, and it’s not particularly pretty when she does.” –Bonfire
“I solved the hand-washing problem by putting a pump dispenser of hand sanitizer next to the sink and telling my mother-in-law to use this. She had a stroke and can only use one hand, so this has worked tremendously. Initially, we had to remind her, but now she goes right to it after she uses the bathroom.” –1daughterinlaw
“Putting up a sign also helps to remind seniors to wash their hands. This is very common in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Think of a six-year-old child or a toddler: they get distracted and they forget. Try to be more patient. Your loved one may not realize they haven’t washed their hands.” –reindeermama
“Make whoever is visiting responsible for good hand-washing with your loved one. Get pump soap, bar soap or whatever will work. Always accompany them to the restroom and pour that soap into their hands. Tell a story while they’re washing to help them scrub longer. I happen to volunteer at a hospital where they tell you to sing the happy birthday song while you wash your hands. If you can afford them, get the hand wipes for travel and outside use. Take one out, turn to your loved one and hold their hands while you cleanse them. And the mention of ‘the doctor says you should…’ works wonders with this age group!” –geewiz
“Hand hygiene is a problem with many older people. Even those who attempt to keep themselves clean are often not very successful. Keep your loved one’s nails short if you can. Guide them to the sink and help them wash when they come into the kitchen. Don’t make a fuss about it—just say something like, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’ve come to help me. Let’s get washed up first.’ Help them find the soap and towel and then hand them a clean apron.” –cwillie
“Keep a nail brush by the sink for cleaning yucky, gross nails. I use soap on the brush and scrub my mother’s nails. After each bathroom use, I tell her she must WASH her hands. I guide her to the sink and tell her step by step how to wash her hands.” –giltterart
“If your parent still responds to written signs, you could put a sign opposite the toilet saying ‘(NAME), remember to wash your hands after you use the toilet.’ Initially, someone might need to go with them and point the sign out for several days until they get accustomed to seeing it.” –KarenJ
“Might it be a bit less exhausting if you cut out the discussion part? Once you hear your loved one get to the pulling up their underpants part, knock, breeze in cheerfully and help them wash their hands, acting like it’s routine and ‘all part of the service, here!’ You’ll save a lot of wasted breath that way.” –Countrymouse
“I take some plastic gloves, fill the tips with hand sanitizer that is at least 62% alcohol and help my mom put them on for a few minutes.” –inneedindeed
“If your loved one is able, have them help do the dishes. It is a great way to get their hands clean. I have also given my mother-in-law a dish of soapy water with a toothbrush and asked her to help me clean my jewelry. This approach was easier because she is in a wheelchair, so we just set it up on the kitchen table.” –Bostongranny