[ˈhīˌjēn] conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness:
synonyms: cleanliness · sanitation · sterility · purity · disinfection
Have you recently noticed a decline in your loved one’s personal hygiene? When this occurs, it is typically one of the warning signs that they could use some assistance. Chances are that there is more going on than meets the eye (or the nose). Un-kempt and greasy hair, unshaven whiskers, dirty clothes, body odor, and bad breath are all indications that your loved one is struggling more than you think. Lack of proper personal care can contribute to social isolation, depression and a multitude of health problems such as spread of disease, skin infections, and urinary tract infections. Poor hygiene also contributes to a loss of dignity and negative self-image.
Generational and Cultural Differences: It is important to consider your loved one’s past habits and cultural preferences when trying to evaluate whether or not they are experiencing hygiene challenges. Many Americans bathe every day, but this is not the norm for all countries. We take for granted what a luxury it is to have clean running water readily available. For older generations, they may have been raised in a time when people showered every few days. It wasn’t as easy to do laundry so they may be in the habit of wearing their clothes several times before washing them. If this has been the case for most of their life, it is unrealistic to suddenly expect your loved one to bathe daily and wear clothes one time before washing them. This is one of those instances that you really need to pick your battles. Encourage clean underwear daily and bathing every couple of days.
Mobility: For individuals with decreased mobility, the bathroom is typically the most dangerous room in the house. The average home or apartment is not equipped with grab bars or wheelchair access. Add slippery surfaces to the mix and it is a recipe for disaster. Many people who use walkers and wheelchairs are fearful of falling in the shower. They shower less frequently and some avoid it all together. If you suspect that this is the case for your loved one, have an honest conversation about it. Perhaps it is time to bring in a bath aide twice a week and add safety features such a grab bars and a bath bench. Maybe it is time to consider moving to an assisted living apartment with a wheelchair accessible bathroom and staff available to assist if needed.
Incontinence and Toileting Troubles: Recent studies estimate that half of all seniors are incontinent. Incontinence is simply defined as the loss of bladder or bowel control. As you can imagine, this is an issue that can cause a lot of shame. Many seniors are unwilling to discuss their incontinence and prefer to keep it a private matter. With or without incontinence, it can be difficult to wipe properly due to arthritis and mobility. Some warning signs to look for are dirty laundry that smells of urine or feces, stained/dirty bedding, and body odor that indicates toileting challenges. I once spoke to daughter that had no clue of her dad’s incontinence until she found a hidden pile of soiled underwear in his closet. He was too ashamed to tell her. If you suspect incontinence, talk to your loved one and to their doctor as well. There are many great incontinence products on the market today that can prevent embarrassing accidents. Also consider purchasing flushable personal wipes to keep in the bathroom. These can make cleaning up a little easier, but are not to be used in replacement of regular showers. Those suffering from incontinence are a higher risk for UTI’s (urinary tract infection) so cleanliness is of the utmost importance. UTI’s are a common cause for hospitalization in seniors.
Privacy and Embarrassment: I received a call from son that needed help for his elderly mother who was currently living with him and had been for some time. In the process of asking him some questions, it came to light that his mother had not had a bath or shower for months! On top of that, she had an ongoing skin infection. He admitted to me that he was embarrassed to assist her with personal care so he just kind of ignored the issue. Because of his embarrassment and reluctance to bring in outside help, he had neglected his mom and endangered her health. If you are running into this issue, it is time to bring in the professionals. Embarrassment should never lead to neglect. There are many wonderful care options available. Our eldercare consultants are happy to brainstorm solutions with you.
Dementia: A decline in personal hygiene is common in those who are suffering from dementia. Perhaps your loved one can’t remember when they last bathed, wasn’t it yesterday? Or perhaps they have dug their heels in and they just plain refuse to bathe, brush teeth, or change clothes. Sometimes a person with dementia might forget to use shampoo, or forget how to operate the shower. I recall one gentleman with dementia knowing that his hair was dirty and wanting to wash it. His solution was to rub some Tide laundry soap into it. His daughter figured out what happened when she recognized the scent and bluish tint of his hair. If some of this is sounding familiar, please give us a call immediately. You need help and you need it now.
A decline in personal hygiene is usually just one of many warning signs that your loved one needs some assistance. Our experienced and compassionate eldercare consultants are here to help you assess the situation. We understand that each situation is different and there is not a “one size fits all” solution. Please give us a call so that we can give you the support and solutions that you need in order to protect your loved one’s health, comfort, and dignity.
Author: Jerry Graham, CSA
Providing Guidance and Care Options for Families