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Published May 17, 2014, 09:24 AM

Minding Our Elders: Alzheimer’s can make bathing difficult

Dear Carol: My mother was always a very clean person, but she has Alzheimer’s now and the situation has totally reversed. Mom’s always reluctant to get into the tub or shower, though some days are worse than others.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: My mother was always a very clean person, but she has Alzheimer’s now and the situation has totally reversed. Mom’s always reluctant to get into the tub or shower, though some days are worse than others.

I remind her how much she likes being clean. I tell her how good it will feel to be fresh, and I’ve even asked her to do it to please me. Sometimes one of those approaches works, but other times she just fights. What more can I do? – Cheryl

Dear Cheryl: As you may already know, this is a common issue with people who have later-stage dementia. Fear seems to be at the root of the problem. Like many situations in Alzheimer’s care, arguing with your mom when she fights a bath isn’t likely to help and can make matters worse.

I had a recent experience that truly stunned me as to the power this fear can have. The storyteller, a nursing home CNA with years of experience, spoke of a woman she provided care for and how the elderly woman had fought against getting into her bath.

The care home had the type of walk-in tub many nursing homes have, with lots of warm water and bubbles. The aide bathing her was kind and experienced. Yet, the elderly woman was frantic. Later she said to her primary CNA, “Do you know what someone tried to do to me?” The CNA said, “No, what did they do?” The woman replied, “They tried to boil me!”

As much as I’ve understood the possible fear of bathing that someone with Alzheimer’s could have, this story hammered home the absolute truth that caregivers must try to understand the message behind the words and actions of someone with dementia.

As you mentioned, some days are better than others. If you sense that your mother is having a good day, make the environment as calm and comfortable as possible. Speak gently, letting her know each step you are taking, such as when you are going to wet her hair. Keep the water temperature warm but not hot, and be ready to pull back if she exhibits true fear.

On days when you sense terror, it’s probably best to back off. If she’s calmer later in the day, you may be able to say that you’d like to wipe her face with a nice, warm cloth. If that works, you can ask permission to wash her arms and so on.

If she fights even this approach, gently wipe her face if necessary and then let it go. Reminding yourself that this fear is rational to your mother may help you remain calm so that your body language doesn’t feel threatening to her.

Expect hard times and don’t blame yourself when things don’t go well. Do your best. With a careful approach, you may be able to keep her acceptably clean if not quite up to her old standards.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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