How to Shower a Reluctant Elder-Part 1 Reasons the Elderly Resist Bathing

How do I get my elderly mom/dad to take a shower? That is a question that numerous caregivers ask everyday. Are you one of the thousands of people caring for an aging parent who struggles with the seemingly EASY concept of basic hygiene? 

Well, the good news is that you are not alone. The even better news is that this series is for you. 

Using a little humor and a whole lot of practical advice, I am going to talk you through the process of showering a reluctant loved one. I will share all the tips and tricks I've used to

coerce dozens of  residents and loved ones into their showers and baths with less fuss. 

Since this post is ginormous, I have broken it into three parts:

  • Part 1:  Why Do the Elderly Resist Showering?
  • Part 2:  Tips for Handling Shower Issues Mentioned in Part 1
  • Part 3:  The Head to Toe of Showering-A How-To Guide

Ready? Okay, lets look at some of the reasons why your elderly loved one may be fighting tooth and nail to avoid a bath. 

Why Do the Elderly Resist Showering? 

It may be totally puzzling (and frustrating) to you, the caregiver, when your elderly parent won't cooperate at shower time. This is especially true if they were always fastidious about their grooming beforehand. 

So why don't they want a shower now? Doesn't everyone like to feel all warm and clean and relaxed?

One of the problems here is that showering may not be that relaxing for the elderly anymore. And there are plenty of good reasons why they might not enjoy it as much as you think they should: 

Issue 1. Fear of Injury

The elderly might be afraid to take a shower. Bath tubs and showers are like minefields for the elderly. Every aspect can be a hazard for those who are weak, unsteady, vision impaired, or physically disabled. 

Every time an elder steps foot into the shower, they run the risk of encountering a variety of injuries, from slips and falls to soap in their eyes. If they have had a bad experience being showered or bathed by someone else at some point, they may be anxious about accidental scalds or freezing water. 

Issue 2.  Fear in General--Dementia

For those with Alzheimer's or other dementias, a roaring shower or tub can be terrifying. 

I will paraphrase a former co-worker who had spent 45 years caring for the elderly in a skilled nursing facility. 

"Imagine you had never had a shower in your life--like you were raised in the wild or something. Then someone you don't know comes into your safe cave, wheels you into an empty room, takes away your clothing, and sticks you under a waterfall and starts scrubbing you all over--and you can't understand a word they are saying to you." 

It might be a pretty primitive way to look at dementia, but it isn't totally inaccurate. 

Issue 3. Embarrassment: 

Just because a person knows that they need help doesn't necessarily mean that they appreciate that fact. They appreciate YOU. They just don't like that they have to depend on someone to do something so very personal for them. 

Imagine how you would feel if you suddenly broke your legs, and needed help showering, and the only person to help was someone like your Uncle Edwin or Cousin Lulu. 

If your elderly parent was a modest person around their children, then it may be very painful for them to need up close and personal care from their child now.  Just as awkward as it would be for you to receive care from a relative that would not normally see you in your altogether. 

Issue 4. Decreased Olfactory Perception

That is a fancy way of saying that sometimes the elderly can't smell themselves anymore. Or may not be able to process good odors from bad odors. 

In this case, they may be convinced that they don't need a bath yet, since they still smell "good" from last time. 

Issue 5.  Decreased Sense of Time

For a confused elder who can't keep track of time, it may seem like just yesterday that they were being showered.

Issue 6. Fear of Being a Nuisance 

This is another form of embarrassment.  You have the elderly person who is convinced that they are a huge burden since they aren't able to take care of themselves. 

They may never say it, but they may show the signs by refusing many things that might cause their caregiver to go through "any trouble for them." 

This can also apply to a parent who is overly anxious about money, and may feel that they are saving you not just physical effort, but money as well by not using water, soap, etc. (including the "cost" of laundering their still perfectly "clean" clothes after a bath.)

Issue 7. Loss of Independence 

And sometimes you are facing a person who may have problems coping with the fact that they can't do the things they used to do anymore. 

The more independence they have had to relinquish (such as driving, managing their own medication, living in someone else's home, etc.)  the more fiercely they may fight against little issues in order to have some control over their lives and bodies. 

Issue 8. Being Home Too Much

When they were younger, your parents most likely: 

  • Went to work
  • Had company over
  • Socialized outside the home
  • Went to dinner together
  • Engaged in a physical hobby such as gardening or biking
  • Set examples to teach their children about good grooming

Today, they may feel more sequestered. If keeping up a regular routine of grooming is painful or difficult, then they may not feel like it is worth the effort if they aren't going to be around many people. 

If they are no longer working or as physically active as before, they may feel like they don't get dirty enough to justify a shower either. 

Issue 9: Depression

Resisting a  shower is not necessarily a sign of depression. However, a complete sense of apathy about themselves in general might be. You should bring this up with their doctor if you feel this may be the underlying issue.

Issue 10. Physical Pain or Fatigue

It may just be downright tiring or painful to your loved one to go through the showering process. 

More Reasons Why the Elderly Refuse Showers

The above issues are some of the more common reasons that you may be fighting a battle of wills in the bathroom. Here are some more:

Issue 11.  Temperature Issues

Its no secret that sometimes the elderly feel colder than everyone else. As a person ages, their skin becomes thinner, they may have less body fat (Nature's insulation) and they may be on medications such as blood thinners that make it harder for them to retain body heat. 

They may also just not be able to process how cold/warm/hot a room feels. Therefore, a bathroom that feels warm enough to you, may feel like a walk in freezer to them. Not the place you want to strip to the buff and jump in the water. 

Adjusting the water temperature can be tricky too. You might have that person who always swears the water is too warm or too cool, leaving you to spend most of the shower fiddling with the knobs until the water heater runs out of hot water. 

Issue 12.  Time of the Day

Over the years, people develop certain preferences for daily rituals. For example, they choose one side of the bed to sleep on, which end of the sofa they like to sit on, and a certain time of day to take their showers or baths. 

The whole resistance thing may be because you are putting them on a showering schedule that they don't like. Also, those with Alzheimer's or dementia may have "better" times of the day. 

 Issue 13. Sensitive Skin

That thinner skin I mentioned above is also more sensitive to pressure. What feels like a nice massaging water pressure to you may feel like being assaulted by jagged hailstones to your elderly loved one. 

Soaps and shampoos can also cause skin irritation.

Issue 14.  Increased Sense of Smell 

If decreased sense of smell keeps someone from knowing they smell punky, how can a keen sense of smell be counterproductive?


If, for whatever reason, a person has increased olfactory perception, then the smell of bath toiletries may be so intense that they are nauseating. Not just the toiletries either. 

Some people can't bear the very minute levels of chlorine present in some water systems. (this phenomenon can be caused by certain medications, sinus issues, head injuries,  tumors of the brain, and other factors.)

As a trade-off, they may become accustomed to their own body odor, and prefer the natural scent to that of chemicals. 

Issue 15: Childhood Habits

Many older persons grew up when bathing was more of a once a week or "as needed" event, rather than a daily routine. 

There could have been many reasons for this, such as:

  • Era (daily bathing was not always the norm, you know), 
  • Geography 
  • Economy
  • Culture
  • Plain old family tradition. 

Even if your parent as you knew them always bathed regularly, now that they are older they may regress to those childhood routines. 

Getting to the Bottom of the Showering Problem

The easy part is reading why your elderly parent may not want bathe. The hard part is figuring out which issue is relevant in your home. 

It may be a combination of issues. The only way to know for sure is to attempt to talk to your loved one (delicately) about the subject. If you have a good rapport with your parent, then you can ask him or her if there is anything you can do to make bathing easier for them. 

If you think they might be touchy about the subject, you can bring in a third party, such as their doctor, to help drive home the importance of why hygiene is so important to their health. 

Then stay tuned for part  2 of this series for tips and tricks to get around the showering issues mentioned in this post.