Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bathing the Reluctant: a How-To.

It's my first day off (finally!) after being on for 6 days in a row, so I'm predictably spending the day at home. On the couch, in the bed, or the bathtub. I plan to do laundry and roast some vegetables later, but that's about as enthusiastic as I'll get today. I'm Tired with a capital T.

So when I got a call from the HomeCare agency this afternoon (I'm still "on call" with them, though I've yet to actually go and work a shift for them since switching from regular employee to on-call) I screened it. And then was pleasantly surprised when it was a voicemail from the office staff saying that my former client Gary has recently begun refusing to bathe for his caregiver, the one that took over for me when I left. She wanted to know if I'd be willing for Gary's new caregiver to call me and talk it over with me to see if I could help. Sure!

So now I'm feeling like a (tired) Shower Expert. And wanting to share my super-important knowledge with the world. So if you've ever wondered "how the hell am I going to get that cranky old coot to take a shower?", this one's for you.

Step 1: Assess the need/reluctance:
Lots of elderly people don't like to bathe. They truly don't need to as often (2x a week is just fine - they have thin skin and tend to perspire less than younger folks, and dry out easily if you wash them too frequently). They hate being cold, don't want to get naked in front of anyone, are afraid of falling on a wet, slippery floor, and may have medical equipment (indwelling catheters, ostomy bags) that make showering a hassle. No wonder they say no when you ask them to go hop in. So think about it first; do they actually need one? If yes, do you need to shampoo their hair as well, or can you give them a shower cap and just wash their body, and shampoo their hair in a sink later? Figure out the bare minimum of what needs to happen today, so you know what you're willing to negotiate down to.

Step 2: Prepare.
Before you even mention the word shower to them, go get it set up. Heat up the bathroom so it's uncomfortably hot for you. Make sure their shower chair/stool is in there, as is their shampoo and everything else. Bring more towels than you think you'll need. If possible, put bathmats down from the toilet to the shower. Bring in the clothes you'll be dressing them in afterward.

Step 3: Approach.
Hopefully you already have gotten to know whoever it is you're trying to bathe, so you know what approach works for them. Some people hate surprises, so you really need to tell them ahead of time where you're going. Pitch it in a positive way, with a smile and enthusiasm, "Hey Betty! Guess what? Since today is your shower day, I went and got your bathroom all nice and warm for you, and pulled out that lavender soap you like! C'mon, let me show you what I did!". Others, it's a mistake to mention the word shower until they're already in the bathroom. I have several residents like this. For them, I just say "Let's go use the restroom" and walk them in there. Once they're seated on the toilet, I go ahead and remove their briefs, pants, shoes and socks (this is where the bathmats come in; no bare feet on cold floors). Then and only then do I say, "Okay, Bill, we've already got you halfway ready, which is great! Today is your shower day, so I've got the warm water running, and if you just walk along these mats to the shower, I'll help you get settled in and get all warmed up in there."

Step 4: Overcome resistance.
Once you've pitched the idea, you'll probably get some resistance. Common ones, and responses to them are things like

"I don't need a shower, I just took one"
"It's hard work being beautiful, isn't it?"
or "Time flies, doesn't it? Today is Tuesday, so it's been about a week since last time. It's going to feel so good to get that warm water on, isn't it?"

"Why are you in such a hurry to get me wet?"
"We're not in any hurry. But I want your skin to be clean and healthy, so we need to get you washed up for that to happen."

"I don't want to get in there! I don't want to get wet!"
"I know you don't always like it, but I set everything up really nicely for you today. I think you'll enjoy it. Give me 2 minutes to try it out, and if you don't like it, I'll help you get out and get dressed."

"I don't want my hair wet!"
"Okay, here's a shower cap"
or if that's not an option "Here's a dry cloth to hold over your eyes. I'll aim the water so it stays off your face."

If your patient has advanced dementia and can't really talk or be reasoned with, still set it up nicely, talk them through it in a positive way. They're likely to get combative when you start to undress them, so it might be best to get a buddy to come and help you get through that part as quickly as possible so they don't get any more riled up than they have to. It's fine to leave on socks, for example, if they really won't give them up. They'll want them off later once they're wet.

Step 5: Bathe.
Do whatever it is you promised to do. If you promised not to wet someone's hair, don't surprise them by suddenly hosing down their head. That's not nice. Get them settled on the shower chair, check the water temperature on your inner arm (above your gloves). Chances are, most elderly people will want their shower cooler than you'd take yours. Approximately body temperature. Have them check the temp with their hand first. If they're not able to do that and give you feedback, start at their feet and move up slowly, so they get a chance to acclimate before feeling the temperature on their chest or back. Have them help and participate as much as possible, even if that's only to hold a washcloth to (hopefully) stop them from punching you. Keep talking through what you're doing in a gentle voice "Okay, Sally, here's some warm water for your back. Now I'm going to wash your back with this cloth, and then we'll rinse off all the bubbles. Good! Next let's do your chest" etc. If they're freaking out, do it as fast as possible, and concentrate on armpits and pericare.

Step 6: Finish.
As soon as you turn that water off, cover them in towels as much as is possible. If they walk, put down a dry towel on top of the (closed) toilet lid and help them walk over to it and sit down. If they don't, wrap up their shoulders and back, drape one over their lap, and keep one to start drying their arms and legs. Get them dry, lotioned and dressed as quickly as you can. Usually once they realize you're putting clothes on and not off, they'll relax and help more.

Pat yourself on the back, wipe the sweat off your face, pick up the zillions of wet towels, and spray down that shower with bleach. You did it!


  1. Love the blog! Great tips on showering a reluctant resident (which seems to be almost all of them). I have read some of your posts, and am looking forward to more in the future. Having a passion for taking care of the elderly is something we have in common and I am glad you are showing that there are fabulous workers in a field that rarely gets recognition. If you have time I would love for you to follow my blog! I'm sure you will appreciate some of my upcoming posts :)

  2. Great post! I work with Alzheimer residents as a C.N.A. I have been doing this for about 6 years ad I am now in nursing school. I definatly can relate with you on the whole bathing/showing thing and could not agree more with your tips! I look forward to reading more of your posts