Tips on helping someone with dementia to wash themselves

We’ve got tips and advice on how to carry out this very personal activity with kindness and dignity

Bathing is a normal part of everyday life. Much like eating or sleeping, it’s something we have to do in order to feel comfortable and happy. But if you're living with dementia, bathing can become a whole new challenge. So if you're loved one needs help and support with washing and bathing – or might need it in the future – it’s important to know the best way to approach it.

Three reasons why bathing can become an issue

1. If you have memory problems it's very easy to forget whether or not you have washed or bathed that day. In fact, noticing that your relative or loved one isn't washing – often completely out of character – could be one of the first warning signs that something isn’t right.

2. When dementia develops, the bathroom can pose a host of worries and fears. The toilet can seem like a strange, dark hole. The water coming out of the taps may be too forceful or hot and the bathroom mirror could be showing a reflection of someone that the person with dementia doesn’t even recognise – imagine how scary that could be.

3. Losing the ability to bathe independently – and the privacy that goes with it – can be extremely distressing for someone with dementia. So it's hardly surprising that they might either refuse to do it or at least be very resistant to the idea. Luckily, there are steps you can take to make bathing easier for them and for you.

Is the bathroom safe?

Taking time to assess the bathroom in the wake of a dementia diagnosis is a good first step. You don’t necessarily have to refurbish the whole room, but making a few small changes could help make bathing a lot easier.

Slips and falls are one of the biggest risks for someone with dementia. Suffering a fall is one of the most common reasons that someone with dementia is admitted to hospital, and this in turn can actually make dementia symptoms worse.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure the bathroom is safe for them. This includes ensuring that the flooring isn’t slippery, the bath or shower is easy to use and get into, and the mirror is easily covered if shiny surfaces and reflections cause distress.

You might want to get useful gadgets such as bath thermometers, anti-flood plugs, bath or shower chairs and install grab rails to make it safer and easier.

How should you behave?

One of the things that people find hardest to adjust to is having to take on the role of carer for someone who in the past was perhaps a parent or partner. Not surprisingly, the dynamic changes when you’re having to help with undressing and washing.

The key is to act with dignity and kindness. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were in the same position. You need to combine being efficient at washing with making them feel comfortable. Rushing through the process in an overly brisk manner might seem like the best option, but if the person you’re bathing feels hurried, they could become upset. Keep up a light-hearted conversation if that help to keep the tone relaxed, even if it’s just talk about the weather or directions on how to sit or stand.

If the person you’re bathing is self-conscious, think about ways that you can help them to undress or wash so that they don’t feel embarrassed. This might involve using a dressing gown or towel to change behind, or covering areas of the body that you’re not currently washing so they don’t feel exposed.

Many people with dementia will feel frustrated with their loss of control at being unable to do tasks that they were previously quite capable of doing themselves. Where you can, try to help the person feel in control. Give them choices, from whether they have a bath or shower if they’re able, to letting them pick the soap or shower gel and giving them a role during the process. For example, asking them to wash their arms, face and neck if they can. This is especially important as diving in and taking over could mean the person stops trying altogether, becomes de-skilled and loses their independence more quickly. Better to wait a bit to see if they can manage the task themselves.

Seven ways to make bathing a comforting experience

Bathing should be a relaxing experience so think about that before you start. Make sure the bathroom is warm enough so that when they remove their clothes, they don’t get cold.

1. Have everything that you need to hand including soap, sponges and towels, so you don’t need to leave them alone. If they can bathe on their own, make sure they can see where they are easily.

2. If you’re washing their hair, look at whether a no-tears shampoo would be better if they don’t like having soap in their eyes. Or you could gently rest a wash cloth over their eyes while you rinse the shampoo out.

3. Be gentle when washing as their skin may have become more sensitive. Think about this when setting the water temperature, too.

4. Use large, fluffy towels or a dressing gown that can easily cover them and keep them warm once you’ve finished bathing.

5. A bubble bath can be a useful addition to bathing if the person you’re caring for doesn’t like reflections on the surface of the bath water or seeing how deep it is. It can also make it feel more indulgent and relaxing if there are bubbles.

6. Don’t forget your own safety. Helping people in and out of baths and showers can put a lot of strain on your back, especially if you have lots of lifting to do. You may be able to fit bath hoists or lifts in the bath.

7. If you’re struggling to bathe someone that you’re caring for, look into whether you can get a nurse or carer to come in and help.