Caring for an aging loved one sometimes means assisting them with activities of daily living, such as helping them bathe, dress, or brush their teeth. Helping an aging adult with their personal hygiene takes patience, preparation, and skill.
Saige Via, a caregiving supervisor at Chestnut Knoll assisted living community in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, knows a few things about being a caregiver. She shared her expert advice on personal care for seniors, which can help you accomplish these essential tasks while maintaining your loved one’s dignity.
Lack of hygiene is one of the important signs an aging parent needs help with daily living tasks. However, relying on others’ help with personal care can feel invasive and even humiliating for many seniors. It’s important to have honest discussions about what your loved one feels comfortable with to relieve stress and create trust, explains Via.
“Providing care to someone is a very personal and private thing,” she said. “Some people may not want to accept help from you. It’s best to have these kinds of conversations ahead of time.”
Have a conversation with your senior loved one to learn more about their preferences and abilities. Ask them the following questions:
Following your aging parent’s normal routine will help them feel more comfortable, Via explains. For example, if your parent showers in the morning, maintain that routine, if possible. If they use specific items — such as certain washcloths, soaps, or shampoos — keep their favorite items consistent, too.
“There’s no need to add confusion by changing their routine,” Via said. “Try to stick to their normal schedule. You have to remember that you’re entering their space. It can help you build a better relationship.”
Helping your loved one bathe can feel overwhelming without the right tools and techniques. Follow these tips for a smoother and safer experience.
If your elderly parent has poor balance or can’t stand for long periods of time, you may need to make the shower or bathtub more accessible.
Consider the following to help ensure safer practices for hygiene:
Hygiene needs for the elderly may be different than you expect. Bathing twice a week is typically sufficient for an elderly person unless accidents occur, Via said.
“When someone is incontinent, I will give a quick wash and dry when changing them to avoid any skin breakdown from occurring,” she said. “I also wash them with soap and water thoroughly every night before bed and every morning when they get ready for the day.”
Preparing and organizing items is one of the simplest ways to help ensure bathing goes smoothly. Have these basic materials ready before you begin:
“It’s important to have everything you need in one spot, so you can focus on the senior,” Via said.
Some seniors may feel more comfortable holding towels over their private areas during bathing. Although the towels will need to be worked around to clean those areas, that bit of privacy might make your loved one more comfortable.
Bacteria grows under skin folds — therefore, it’s important to clean under every fold and wrinkle, including:
Dry these areas with a towel to avoid fungal infections. Rinse away soap completely so your loved one’s skin doesn’t become too dry or agitated.
Skin becomes more sensitive with age, so it’s important to pat dry with a towel instead of rubbing. Applying a moisturizer will also help prevent dryness and can even be a bit therapeutic for your senior loved one if you gently massage it into their skin.
The American Academy of Dermatology has these additional skin tips for the elderly:
Maintaining dental hygiene as part of personal care for seniors is important for long-term health. Seniors need to see their dentist every six months or more often, depending on their medical conditions. Dentures should be checked regularly for proper fit, and gums need to be checked for gum disease or cancer.
Via recommends practicing good oral hygiene in the morning and before bed. She prepares toothbrushes with toothpaste for seniors who can brush their teeth on their own. If someone can’t brush their teeth on their own, Via will either guide their hand with hers or brush for them.
The American Dental Association recommends these additional oral hygiene practices for seniors:
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
Your involvement with hygiene-related tasks depends on your loved one’s needs and abilities. Do your best to help them remain in control, Via recommends.
“I help with shaving, dentures, brushing teeth, and washing faces, and I approach all of these types of care the same way,” she said. “I ask if they need me to get the items ready or physically assist them. Sometimes they just need items laid out. I try to let them do as much as possible to help them feel independent.”
It’s natural to have good and bad days as a caregiver, especially when helping with personal care for seniors. When you’re feeling frustrated, Via suggests putting yourself in your family member’s shoes to understand how they may be feeling.
“It’s a new and sometimes scary experience for seniors,” she said. “Always be patient, understanding, and communicative.”
She also said you need to know your limits when providing personal care for seniors. When you’re caring for a family member, there may be times when you need to ask for help. It’s best to learn your personal limits, as well as your loved one’s limits. Boundaries can help you develop a healthy and functional caregiving dynamic.
“If your mom won’t shower, take a step back,” Via said. “Maybe someone else can get her to do it, or maybe someone else has an idea to help.”
Remember, you’re not alone in your caregiving journey. If your loved one relies heavily on receiving personal care, it might be a good idea to consider full-time senior living arrangements. Senior living communities provide a variety of personal care for seniors through assistance with daily living activities such as bathing, dressing, grooming, and more. Communities also offer a range of living accommodations, activities, and dining options so that your loved one can be as comfortable as possible.
Interview conducted with Via, S. Chestnut Knoll. June 1, 2020.