Caring for an aging loved one sometimes means assisting with grooming and body hygiene, such as helping them bathe, dress, or brush their teeth. Even though we practice our own personal hygiene every day, helping an aging adult with theirs takes patience, preparation, and skill.
Learn an expert caregiver’s do’s and don’ts to accomplish these essential tasks more easily 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. But relying on others’ help with cleaning or grooming can feel invasive and even humiliating for many seniors.
It’s important to have honest discussions about what they feel comfortable with to relieve stress and create trust, according to Saige Via, a caregiving supervisor for seven years at Chestnut Knoll, a Boyertown, Pennsylvania, assisted living community managed by Heritage Senior Living.
“Providing care to someone is a very personal and private thing. Some people may not want to accept help from you,” Via says. “It’s best to have these kinds of conversations ahead of time.
“It can be scary for seniors to let their personal guard down, but try to understand their expectations, learn their routines, and build trust.”Saige Via, caregiving supervisor at Chestnut Knoll
Have a conversation with your loved one to learn more about their preferences and abilities. Ask them:
Following your aging parent’s normal routine will help them feel more comfortable and at ease, says Via. If your parent showers or bathes in the morning, for example, continue to maintain their schedule if you can. If they use specific items — like certain washcloths, soaps, or shampoos — keep their favorite items consistent, too.
“There’s no need to add confusion by changing their routine. Try to stick to their normal schedule,” Via says. “You have to remember that you’re entering their space. It’s important to do what you can to make them feel comfortable. It can help you build a better relationship.”
How involved you need to be with hygiene-related tasks depends on your loved one’s needs and abilities. Do your best to help them remain in control, says Via.
“I help with shaving, dentures, brushing teeth, and washing faces, and I approach all of these types of care the same way,” she says. “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.”
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:
How often should an elderly person bathe? Twice a week is typically sufficient unless accidents occur, according to Via.
“When someone is incontinent, I will give a quick wash and dry when changing them to avoid any skin breakdown from occurring. I also wash them with soap and water thoroughly every night before bed and every morning when they get ready for the day.”
One of the simplest ways to help ensure bathing goes smoothly is to prepare.
“I like to lay residents’ clothes out, gather the soap and wash cloths, and get everything ready before taking them into the bathroom.”Saige Via, caregiving supervisor at Chestnut Knoll
“It’s important to have everything you need in one spot so you can focus on them.”
Have these basic materials ready before you begin:
Liquid soaps make for faster and more efficient bathing. Bar soaps can be slippery and may increase risk of falls.
Some seniors may feel more comfortable holding towels around their private areas during bathing. While the towels will need to be worked around to clean those areas, you can develop a routine that works for you and your loved one.
Skin folds are where bacteria grow, so it’s important to clean under every fold and wrinkle, including:
These areas will also need to be dried with a towel to avoid fungal infections. While you’re cleaning your loved one, be sure to rinse away soap completely so their skin doesn’t become too dry or agitated.
Skin becomes more sensitive with age, so it’s important to pat dry instead of rubbing with a towel. 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 additional skin tips for the elderly:
Maintaining dental hygiene is important for long-term health. Seniors need to see their dentists 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 twice a day: in the morning and before bed.
For seniors who can brush their teeth on their own, Via prepares their toothbrush by putting toothpaste on it. If someone can’t brush their teeth on their own, Via will either guide their hand with hers or brush herself.
The American Dental Association has additional oral hygiene practices for seniors:
It’s natural to have good and bad days as a caregiver, especially when helping with personal tasks. When you’re feeling frustrated, Via suggests trying to:
“It can be hard to know your limits when caring for a family member. It’s OK to talk to other people, ask for help, or find other strategies.”Saige Via, caregiving supervisor at Chestnut Knoll
“If your mom won’t shower, take a step back. 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. Get support and advice from people who understand with our list of 24 in-person and online caregiving support groups.
Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.