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Practical Caregiving

Waning Elderly Hygiene Can Stink for Caregivers

By Jean Donahue

Many problems present themselves when our parents come to the point between where they can completely take care of themselves and need someone else to take care of them. I have had several emails from people asking how to handle their parent when they first show signs that they are starting to need a little assistance.

One of the most apparent ways that our parents show their need for help is in the area of personal hygiene. Many adult children (and spouses) face the gradual decline in personal hygiene of their loved one. At other times the hygiene issue pops up like night and day: your loved one simply -- but noticably -- isn't as clean as they used to be.

Exactly how can you bring this neglectful and often offensive condition to their attention without hurting them greatly? What can you do to help them?

Before you say anything to them, you need to evaluate the situation. Is there a reason for their lack of personal cleanliness? Do they need a new prescription for glasses or do they need glasses for the first time? What about cataracts? How difficult is it for them to get to the washer and dryer? Has something happened to their sense of smell? Are they depressed? Do they have the energy to wash dishes, wash their clothes, wash themselves, take care of the house? Are they having money problems and trying to save on their expenses? Do they get too cold when they take a shower? Do they need adult diapers? Is there anything else that could cause their problem?

Actually it could be any of these questions -- or several of them -- that leads once pristine adults to stop taking care of their hygiene.

A good starting point is to talk to them about hygiene's effect on their own health. Very gently, sit down and explain that you are concerned about them. Ask your loved one to get a complete check-up because you see a decline in their cleanliness and you want to make sure they haven't devloped a new physical condition. They may laugh and tell you nothing is wrong, but insist on their getting a physical exam. They will know you love them.

When I first needed glasses, I thought I was doing a good job of cleaning. I was completely surprised to find that I was wrong. When I put on my glasses, I could see dust on my furniture that I thought was clean. I needed to dust more often. This same type of problem might be happening to your loved one, with their body as well as their home.

I had an elderly friend who worked at being clean, but she didn't have the energy to clean her house. I volunteered to clean for her once a week. She was so relieved. I eventually couldn't clean her house any longer, so someone else cleaned it. During that time, my friend developed some personal hygiene problems. She wasn't taking as many baths as before, but she didn't realize it. Time seems to change when you are elderly, and that seemed to be affecting her. She didn't realize two weeks were going by without bathing, and she couldn't smell the problem.

The person who was cleaning her house said something to her, but she wasn't gentle. My friend was really upset and called me, crying because of what had been said. I know none of you want that to happen to your loved one. It would be much better for you to talk to them about it yourself, rather than leave it to chance with a stranger.

Next, offer to help your loved one maintain their personal hygiene in whatever way you can. Clean their house yourself.  Buy the soap they need. Make an appointment with an eye doctor. Pay for personal grooming aids if they can't afford it. Create a schedule for showers, shampoos and other personal care. Make sure the bathroom is warm enough. Do what you can; they will appreciate it.

The elderly are at a greater risk of developing health problems than a younger adult. They are more susceptible to certain germs, and instead of becoming more lax in cleanliness, they actually need to be more vigilant about it.

They need to wash their hands several times a day -- with soap. Too many people don't use soap as often as they should when they wash their hands. When they blow their nose, they should throw the tissue away immediately and wash their hands instead of leaving it lay on the coffee table while they read the newspaper or watch TV.

Oral hygiene is also extremely important. Did you know that a build-up of germs in a person's mouth can actually cause pneumonia? Create sores in their mouth? Good oral hygiene is very important, and the elderly really need to focus on it.

Is their food safe to eat? Do they keep it too long? Is their refrigerator clean? Is it cold enough? Food poisoning is a big concern for the elderly.

Bathing is extremely important, but make sure a good soap is used and then a skin lotion. As people get older, they may not need to bath every day. They do need to bathe often enough to keep their skin from getting infections. Make sure they use a good skin lotion to prevent their skin from becoming too dry. Quite often the elderly have a problem with dry skin.

Whatever you do, make sure you know how you are going to approach your loved one about their hygiene before you talk to them. Gentleness and concern for their feelings will make a big difference in whether their problem is solved.