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How to Discuss Personal Hygiene with Seniors

Mel Grover-Schwartz
By Mel Grover-SchwartzJanuary 13, 2017

Approaching the subject of personal hygiene is uncomfortable for caregivers, but it can be one of the most important conversations to have as our loved ones age. There are many reasons that personal hygiene can decline, and understanding the root cause will help you approach the subject with compassion and understanding.

Learn more about how to discuss personal hygiene with your senior loved ones during this time.

Discussing Personal Hygiene with Seniors

Firstly, hygiene is not just a personal issue. Even if your loved one lives alone, body odor can lead to less visitors, which can create social isolation. Furthermore, as we age, routines become increasingly important to our sense of livelihood and purpose, and for most of us, personal hygiene has always been a mainstay of our daily routine. Lastly, hygiene is a health issue. Whether or not cleanliness itself is the problem, personal hygiene patterns can be a sign that something is not right.

For these reasons and others, acknowledging personal hygiene is essential to maintaining a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, and should be part of any well-balanced care plan to help your loved ones age comfortably.

It is also important to keep in mind that personal hygiene is one of the biggest threats to elder independence, which can be why it is so unnerving for a senior to discuss. Think about it: once daily activities like showering and washing laundry become prohibitively challenging, he or she might require an increased level of supervision, which many people are reluctant to face. For this reason, you shouldn’t be accusatory or focus on incompetence when bringing up personal hygiene issues, but rather frame the conversation around hygiene best-practices, and suggest if and how you can help ease the process of self-care.

Knowing the Root Cause of the Problem

Before you try to find a solution, look for the root cause of the issue in order to provide advice that is respectful of the person’s feelings and within their ability level.

Many causes of body odor and hygiene neglect are common among seniors, and getting educated will help ease your concerns and reduce emotional anxiety so that your discussion is productive.

Some root causes behind these issues include:

1. Depression

Often, as health declines, many aging people experience depression, which can be a big demotivator when it comes to maintaining personal health and wellness. Depression is caused by many factors, and can be realized in different ways by different people. But, it can be treated if you help guide your loved one to a care worker or doctor for additional support.

2. Memory Loss

Memory loss can also lead to forgetfulness around a hygiene schedule. If this is the case, assistive technology and daily reminders could help alleviate the issue and start a conversation around increasing personal assistance. If the effects of memory loss seem more pervasive than the occasional missed shower, your loved one might be suffering from older-age dementia, which can make routine tasks like bathing and using the restroom seem foreign and unintuitive. If you think dementia might be in effect, seeking supplemental professional care will help you navigate any additional challenges you might be confronting.

3. Physical Challenges

Common physical challenges are often the easiest to troubleshoot. If bending is an issue, it can cause foot health issues, and recommending regular pedicures or a shower seat is an easy discussion to have. There are many helpful aging-in-place solutions for physical challenges. Empower your loved one by exploring new ways to bend, reach or grab for things to help them with everyday tasks. Starting conversations about these simple solutions can also be an opening for more intimate discussions, such as bladder control and incontinence.

4. Sensory Decline

As we age our senses decline. Confronting this issue should be treated with sensitivity, as people are quick to become defensive when you question their understanding of what smells good and what doesn’t. In this situation, being inquisitive will help you learn why the person smells the way they do, and allow you to be specific in your advice. Telling grandma only to use two puffs of perfume rather than three will be better received than telling her simply to wear less.

Remember: like all routines, hygiene practices are subjective, and can be informed by cultural or historical practices. Again, asking questions around where and how they developed their habit will help you better understand this sort of nuanced behavior in order to resolve it.

Reasons to Avoid Denial

Regardless of what stage in this process you’re at right now, it’s important to remember to be proactive.

Whether you’re 13 or 93, a discussion about changing bodies, hygiene and odor will be awkward, but as with aging, denial is a poor strategy long-term.

Self-care is so essential to staying motivated and maintaining confidence, no matter where you fall in the life course, and with a relaxed and thoughtful approach, guiding your loved one through a personal hygiene plan will empower them to age gracefully.

How have you approached the discussion about personal hygiene with the senior loved one in your life? Share your suggestions and tips with us in the comments below.

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Mel Grover-Schwartz
Mel Grover-Schwartz
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