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

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.


Elder care author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack is an AgingCare.com contributing editor and moderator of the AgingCare.com community forum. Read her full biography

 Comments 1 to 10 of 105 

Accordimg to at least one doctor, elderly don't need to bathe or shower every day. For one thing, their skin is more prone to dryness and for another they don't get all that dirty. This is not to say they shouldn't be encouraged to wash appropriately, but they don't need a full shower or bath every single day. PCVS

I had this same issue with my Mom. I finally got her to wash her face and hands once in awhile. She passed away 2 months ago. cmf

I went through this with my dad when he was 77 and still living is his own home -- my mother had died 5 years before. The real culprit was dad's fear of getting in and out of his bathtub (with the high "lip") and being unable to get back out again, especially if he chose to take a bath instead of a shower. As well, there were no grab-bar in his bathroom. Instead of just re-outfitting his bathroom, we instead built a handicap-friendly first-floor apartment onto our house for him ----- and now he takes a shower every day and loves it! With dad living so close to us, I can keep tabs on how often he changes his clothing, bathes and what mending needs to be done. He's much happier, feels secure and as a result ... takes his showers. This has also resulted in his dry-skin problem on his feet clearing up.

My Mom was 92 and living in her own house. I just lived across the street from her. I took care of her. She was able to get around pretty good until about 6 months when she got sick and was in and out of the hospital. She had copd a lung problem and on oxygen all the time. It was very hard for me to try to get her to wash every day. She passed away in Feb at 92yrs old. My dad passed away 11yrs ago at 80.

Wow this has been a great concern of mine. I would try to have 'beauty parlor' day from head to toe! I tried to prepare her ahead of time, to no avail. The only success would be if she had an appointment to go to. Months would go by. She will walk around the house, going inside and out, as if she is on a mission, which she is, avoiding the bath. Once it begins to get dark, I know that the bath is not going to happen at night. She gets sun~downers, at times. These five months, in which I have been sole caregiver to my mom, I have learned much, I see her eyes cloud over and she is so far away. I will say, hey momma, where'd ya go? She would turn and laugh and just say, somewhere. When we do accomplish the beauty parlor day, she is voices with passion, how much she appreciates it, and then she will apologize and it is then that I feel her humiliation, to which she is fighting, but it is still apparent. I tell her how much I appreciated all the times she bathe me and washing and setting my hair, so turn about fare play! She gives me that beautiful smile and says, I love you. This article confirmed my thoughts about this topic and with this I can know more about approaching this task. Thank you for sharing.

I care for my mother-in-law, who is in stage 6 of Alzheimer's, and she is convinced that she doesn't need a shower everyday. Everyone else in the house feels otherwise! She stinks so badly every morning that there's simply no choice about it. She also thinks she can wear the same clothes for "about a month" before laundering. When she came to us, it took three washings with a special odor-removing additive to get the urine smell out of her clothes. When I get her up in the morning, I give her the happiest face I can and tell her that she should get ready for her shower. She tends to respond to a happy face better than to words. If she argues, I tell her that everyone in our house showers everyday so she should too. This won't work for everyone, but for us, so far, so good. It helps that she wants her coffee, which comes only after the shower! She is completely ineffective in washing herself, so when she's "done," I soap her up myself, telling her that I'll get her back for her. She knows she can't reach her back, so she lets me. I then just quickly go on to all the other parts. Again, this won't work for a lot of dementia patients, but it's worked so far for us. I think the key is the happy face, smiling and talking to her. She feels loved, so she goes along with it. Sometimes she actually thanks me when I finish washing her!

This article misses an important reason for people with dementia to have problems with showers, baths, even going to the bathroom. People with Dementia often have depth perception and vision changes and often there is a lot of white and soft colors in the bathroom and folks can't tell where the edges of tubs, showers or toilets are! A simple technique is to outline the tub, shower lip or toilet with black or blue masking tape so that a person can see where they are going!

Mom has a skin problem and her dried flesh falls everywhere and she hasn't taken a bath for 5 weeks. The smell is awful and I have tried the above washing her face and arms. She doesn't want me to go further. It's her private parts that smell and she will not clean herself there, what do you recomend? Mom is 79 years old with Dm. She refuses to go to the doctors as well. Any suggestions will be helpful. Thanks, Maggie-

I completely understand. My Mom has canceled her last 3 doctors appts. We have to beg her to shower! We got lucky when Medicare agreed to have a home health nurse come by and bathe her for the next 6 weeks or so. This has helped tremendously, as she is not as argumentative with them as she is with my sister and I. I have tried to get to the bottom of why she hates to shower and I think the main thing was just getting wet and cold. I brought her a great big body towel and that has helped too. I know it sounds mean but can you use scare tactics to get her to go to the doctor? You know like, "Mom, if you don't go get your blood pressure checked there is a chance you may have a stroke and become totally dependent on us!" IF she will let you shower her, try and do like the lady above said. Tell her you are washing her back and then quickly get those private parts. My mom just doesn't seem to smell anything anymore!!!! Would your Mom qualify for a home health nurse to come to the house???

You can't reason with a dementia patient. To get her to the doctor's, you might have to trick her, sorry to say. Some people have succeeded in getting their loved one to the doctor by telling them they're going out to lunch or shopping or wherever they like to go. Then they just make a stop on the way and get that appt taken care of. Would a bubble bath be more to her liking? If she can sit and soak, it would help. I can't get my MIL in and out of the bathtub, but my husband has given her a couple baths on the one day a week he has the bathing job.

 Comments 1 to 10 of 105 
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