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Six tips for bathing an elder

by Isabel Fawcett

Bathing an elder can be tricky. Here are six helpful tips for baffled and frustrated caregivers who ask for such advice in eldercare forums. First and foremost, ensure safety in the shower for elders in your care.

Bathing an Elder

I clam up in forums where caregivers ask the inevitable assistive support question. Generally, the question asked is: "Does anyone have any tips for bathing the elderly?" There are many reasons I shun the question. I am always suspect of the possible motives. Online pranksters notwithstanding, it is reasonable for caregivers to inquire about bathing assistive techniques for elders.

When I have provided bath support to a chronically ill elder, the following six common sense rules prevail.

Tips to Bathing an Elder

1. Safety First. Wet surfaces are slippery which can contribute to needless slips, trips and falls. Before running the bath water, place a mat on the floor of the shower. On top of the suctioned bath mat, I place a hand towel. The hand towel becomes Mom's focal point and cushioned landing as she steps into the shower while I hold her hand and the small of her back.

2. Test water temperature. Before an elder ever steps into the shower, allow the water to run while you make the initial water temperature adjustments. Protocols for using and controlling even simple faucets may be confusing to some elders. If the water isn't already running when the elder steps into the shower, there is increased risk of sudden moves once the water starts running and/or while the water temperature slowly adjusts.

After making initial adjustments to water temperature, ask, or gently assist the elder in testing the water temperature on the back and palm of his or her hand. Closely observe the elder's verbal and non-verbal reactions upon testing the water. Ideally, this water temperature test occurs before the person enters the shower.

3. Avoid sudden moves. Sudden moves--right, left, or any direction away from the flow of water may result in a slip, trip, fall, or worse. Caregivers are most helpful when assisting an elder to remain calm and safe while taking a shower.

4. Check physical mobility. Each chronically ill individual has different physical and/or cognitive limitations. Some elders are able to bathe and clean upper body, lower back, and other areas of their bodies within easier reach without assistance. If the elder is able to properly and safely self-clean and has no medical restrictions, consider whether to allow more, rather than less bath independence while actively monitoring safety and good hygiene habits. In some circumstances, a caregiver may only need to help lather the elder's back and legs below the knees due to the elder's limited reach or easy loss of equilibrium.

5. Speak slowly. Gentle caregiver-to-elder reminders of what's next helps make short work of bath assistive support. Here are some examples.

  • "First, I'm going to help you lather your back. Please stand straight."
  • "You don't need my help to lather the front of your body. Here is your washcloth."
  • "Place your open palms flat on the wall ahead of you for support while I lather the back of your legs."
  • "No need to turn around. You may face the shower-head. I'll help you adjust the shower-head so you never have to turn while in the shower." (Helps minimize sudden moves.)
  • "While you are leaning against the wall, please lift one of your legs slightly. I will brush and lather the sole of your left foot first."

6. Don't rush. If a caregiver is rushed, defer the elder's bath until you have sufficient time to not make the elder anxious about bath time.

As my mother's in-home direct care provider, I smile whenever I hear her singing in the shower. She blows bubbles under the shower-head and loves blowing water away from her mouth and nose. She always thanks God for enabling her to take a shower because it makes her feel better. Bath time need not be a hassle for caregivers or elders. Be safe and keep a steady hand in the small of the elder's back to assist with balance.

Before you know it, bath time will be over.

If you are lucky, you even may hear someone singing in the shower.