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Caregiver Corner - How to Avoid Bath Time Battles

by Lyn Roche

Like the letter-writer below, caregivers often write regarding their loved ones’ resistance to bathing.

Dear Lyn: I take care of my mother who has dementia. We don’t have many problems, with the exception of bath time. It’s always a battle! I try to convince her that she needs a bath but she resists. She can’t bathe herself anymore and we can’t afford to bring someone in to do it. I need some tips. – Battle-fatigued Babe

Dear Babe: Trying to convince those with dementia that they need to bathe seldom works. Actually, anyone required to bathe might get defensive. Forcing your mother to take a tub bath or shower could be dangerous for both of you.  

Think back to the kind of bathing she enjoyed in the past. What was her routine? Try to make the bath area appear familiar, inviting, and non-threatening to her. Suggest bathing at the time of day she’s usually most cooperative. Many care recipients respond well to morning baths, since they’ll only have to dress once for the day.  

Deep tub baths are not recommended for people with dementia. A shallow amount of water and a safe sturdy bath seat work for some.  

Shower water on the skin can be alarming and actually painful to dementia patients. Hand-held shower nozzles are usually gentler and generally easier to work with than overhead showers.

Your mother may be fearful of the sound of running water or afraid of getting water on her head. Don’t shampoo her hair during bath or shower time. Try a dry shampoo or a no-rinse shampoo at a location in your home not associated with a tub, shower, or sink.

Your mother could also be fearful of falling. Whether in the tub or shower, strong grab bars are a must. They need to be easily seen and strategically placed. Floors should be kept dry and not slippery. Beach shoes are good for added safety. The soles are rubber-coated and the upper parts are made of a fast-drying mesh.

Make sure the bathroom is free of drafts and warm enough to be comfortable, but not hot. The same goes for the water. Dementia can decrease a person’s ability to sense temperature accurately. Have the setting lowered on your water heater to ensure your mother will never be burned by hot water. Always test the water with your own hand or elbow before exposing her to it.

There’s also the possibility your mother is uncomfortable being completely undressed in front of you. Maintaining her dignity while helping her bathe is of utmost importance.

There are alternative ways to keep her clean other than showers and tub baths. Thorough sponge baths, traditional bed baths, or towel baths could solve your problem right now. Towel baths are done in bed with large bath/blanket towels. Washcloths are dampened with warm water and no-rinse soap. You can use large towels to keep your mother covered, dry, and warm while you gently massage her with a warm dampened towel and warm washcloths.

Your mother may just be going through a stage and all of a sudden she’ll change her mind and agree to a regular bath or shower. Continue cheerfully offering her choices as to what manner of bath she’d prefer – rather than asking her if she wants to bathe.

Whatever the form of bathing, always have everything ready beforehand. Then, announce in a confident manner that it’s bath time. However, make sure your voice is gentle in tone, not controlling or judgmental. Soft instrumental music playing in the background can be soothing for both of you. You might even suggest that you’ll have ice cream or a favorite treat together afterwards.

When you dry your mother’s skin, try not to rub with the towel – tender pats are kinder to the skin and the spirit.

Lyn Roche is the author of Coping with Caring and Sharing the Care. She is a former caregiver, newspaper columnist, and facilitator of a weekly caregiver support group accredited by both LBDA and the Alzheimer’s Association. She can be contacted by e-mail or by writing to Journey Publications, P.O.B. 433, Sebring, FL 33871.

© Journey Publications 2009