Bathing Battles: Tips for Overcoming Your Senior’s Refusal To Bathe

In extreme cases, ignoring basic personal grooming, bathing, and showering can be a gateway for disease and infection.

First Step: Figure Out Why They Are Refusing To Bathe
If the senior in your life or your care is resistant to showering/bathing or flat out refuses to do so, then you can be sure something is impairing their decision-making. It could be one reason or a combination of factors, which only makes the senior's defiance stronger and your job as a loved one or caregiver harder. Among the many reasons, it could be one of these:

Their acting out may be a result of fear, anxiety or depression. An older person who has become socially isolated and cut off from all but a few family and friends may lose interest or motivation for how they maintain their health, well-being and hygiene. Even mild depression can intensify the feeling of not caring anymore. A senior who has fallen and injured themself in the bathroom previously, especially when maneuvering in and out of the tub or shower, may develop a fear of that space and the dangers it poses. For the elderly, this can be exacerbated by compromised sight or mobility. They may have lost enough sense of smell that they simply don't notice their own odor.
They may be experiencing age-appropriate forgetfulness or, more alarmingly, early-onset dementia.

Ways To Work With Your Older Loved One
Knowing the trigger is a start, but getting the senior to take regular hygiene steps can require empathy, patience, ingenuity and diplomacy. The last thing you want is a battle of wills or to push the senior so far to change their behavior that they blow up or close down. Instead, experts advise the following:

Lead with compassion
Recognize that even tasks like showering/bathing and cutting toenails can be a challenge for some older people. Don't dismiss or laugh off their challenge, but accept it for what it is as you devise solutions.

Make getting clean a team goal or effort
Avoid pointed phrases like "How can you let yourself go like that," "You're filthy," or "You smell." Instead, take the focus off their troubling behavior and motivate them by saying, "We should shower today before we go to lunch," or "Let's get ready for this beautiful day outside by freshening ourselves up." Whether you attach a meal or another activity to their after-bathing experience, the idea is to associate being clean with fun, positive things the senior enjoys doing or identifies with. That way, they may come to expect that one thing leads to or follows the other. That approach also can allow your loved one to participate in the decision and can give them something to anticipate.

Reduce or help eliminate fear-based objections to showering
Install grab bars, tub rails, nonslip mats, and hand-held, adjustable showerheads. Watch for rugs and other things on the floor as well. While you're at it, take a look around the house to see what other fall prevention strategies you should implement.

Stay positive
Praise and encourage your senior loved one with any steps they take toward better care of themself.

Enlist a trusted authority figure
If you struggle to make headway, try consulting their physician or some other authority figure or confidante whose advice they trust.

Balance independence with support
Help your loved one as necessary, but also let them retain as much independence as they can safely assume. If it's not necessary or possible to be in the bathroom with them as they shower or bathe, then with their permission, position yourself just outside the door or nearby so they know that if they need help, you're only a few steps away. As much as possible, let them choose the hour they shower or bathe, and try adjusting your schedule accordingly if their safety demands you or someone else to be there with them.

Consider a sponge bath
If all else fails, then settle for your senior taking sponge baths or using wipes. It's no substitute for a thorough, full body wash, but it's better than nothing. And it just might be the bridge that gets them to take the next steps toward better cleanliness and healthier habits.