Personal Hygiene and Dementia: A Guide for Caregivers

Being a caregiver for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s is an extremely loving, selfless undertaking. However, it’s a responsibility that comes with many unique challenges, including keeping your loved one clean and healthy. Personal care can be an issue for those suffering from dementia. That’s because this degenerative cognitive disease affects the parts of the brain that impact memory and motivation: Although hygiene and grooming habits may have been a beloved part of an individual’s routine before the onset of the illness, they may have forgotten or lost the will to practice them after it progresses.

But there is good news! There are many things you can do to help ensure that your dementia sufferer maintains a healthy personal hygiene regimen. This guide will help you simplify the sometimes daunting task of helping your loved one overcome some of the obstacles that may stand in the way of a healthy and sanitary routine.


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Bathing and Overall Cleanliness

Although many people may not require bathing every day, it’s important to make sure that the body is cleaned on a regular basis. The following resources offer tips on making this process as easy as possible.

Regular bathing may be an issue for someone with dementia, either because they forget that it’s part of their normal routine or because they are fearful of the depth or temperature of the water in a bathtub or shower. For those who are forgetful, try incorporating a regular washing time before the onset of dementia to help it become a habit. Doing it at the same time every day for someone whose disease has progressed is also helpful, especially if it is at a time of day when they typically feel relaxed, such as right after breakfast each morning. For individuals who are afraid of bathing, it can be helpful to install a handheld shower device, or even opting for sponge baths rather than a dip in a tub or shower.

While it is generally more comfortable for people to have clean tresses over unwashed hair, it’s not as important for health as having a clean body. If hair washing really becomes a battle, it may be one that’s worth letting slide a bit. However, it can be more easily incorporated into a routine for someone who resists it by reducing the number of times per week it’s done, and by doing it separately from a bath or shower by doing it over a sink or basin. Be sure to use gentle shampoo and conditioning products, and consider making it a therapeutic session by using fun scents or even adding in a soothing scalp massage.

Being mindful of senior skin care is important in protecting against painful or uncomfortable skin conditions like flaking, infections or even diaper rash. It’s not enough to simply stand in the shower or sit in the bathtub for a few minutes. A washcloth or soft loofah should be used daily all over the body with a gentle soap or cleanser. To avoid dry, tight skin, try using lotion on the face and anywhere else that is prone to parching. This guide from the Alzheimer Society offers tips for making this a soothing routine by using gentle strokes for washing (or encouraging individuals to do this themselves) and using moisturizing cream with a favorite scent.

Toilet habits can be troublesome for those with dementia. Making the bathroom comfortable and easily accessible is a great first step to take, like adding a cushioned toilet seat or installing grab bars near the commode to make sitting down easier. Individuals may also resist the urge to go, either because they are confused, forget where the bathroom is, or are simply embarrassed that they need help. If an accident occurs, lend your support by remaining calm, and helping them clean themselves up if they need assistance. For someone struggling with incontinence, consider using adult pads or diapers, and watch for signs like fidgeting or nervousness that indicate it may be time to change sanitary products.


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Oral Hygiene

Healthy habits related to teeth and gums are essential in overall wellness. The following articles provide helpful information on how to enforce these habits.

Regular teeth brushing is another habit that’s important to integrate into a regular routine, preferably twice a day, in order to ward off tooth and gum disease. Believe it or not, how to brush one’s teeth may be something people forget how to do in addition to remembering to actually do it if they have dementia. It can be helpful to pantomime the action for someone, or to put your hand over theirs as they brush to help them recall how to do it.

Flossing is another battle that may not be worth having for someone who fiercely resists it. They may be more open to individual flossers, either disposable ones made for daily use or a tool designed to be used every day that utilizes disposable attachments. You could also try a gum massager or pick, which can get into the spaces between teeth and help maintain healthy blood flow in the gums.

If you are caring for someone with dentures, cleaning them is a task you may want to take the initiative on yourself. Always ask an individual to remove them on their own first, rather than attempting to do it for them. This guide provides information on what materials you’ll need as well as step-by-step instructions on how to get the job done. It’s also a good idea to speak with your dentist about proper denture care.

Getting someone with dementia to a dentist’s office can be a difficult, sensitive process, but is an important part of oral health care. You should always let a dentist know ahead of time that an individual has this illness and may be afraid or even untrusting of treatment, and to find one who will be empathetic and patient during an appointment. Once a diagnosis is made, it’s also a good idea to discuss what legal actions your loved one may want you to take as his or her caregiver in the event he or she is unable to make decisions individually once the disease progresses, and consult an attorney as necessary.

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Personal Grooming

As dementia progresses, personal care habits may be some of the first practices to be neglected, but they can be essential in keeping an individual healthy and feeling their best. The resources below offer advice on how to maintain these habits.

Dementia sufferers often have a tendency to wear unclean clothing. This may happen for a few different reasons, including because they forget that they’ve just worn it after removing it and put it back in the closet instead of the hamper, or prefer to wear the same outfit over and over again rather than feel stress over having to choose new clothes to wear each day. Caregivers can be supportive by setting out clothing for their loved one each day or buying multiple sets of favorite garments. For extreme cases, it may be necessary to supervise changing out of clothing at the end of each day, but be sure that your loved one is comfortable with this option.

Cleaning underneath and trimming nails can feel like a tedious task for someone with dementia. Soaking the tips of fingers and toes in warm water for a few minutes can help clean accumulated dirt from underneath them, while also softening the nails. This will make trimming easier. If they have especially tough nails, they may enjoy having professional manicure or pedicure treatments – just be sure the tools used by the salon are sterilized, or bring your own sanitized set.

Shaving is another aspect of personal care that is often neglected after the onset of dementia. Switching to an electric razor rather than one with an exposed blade is safer to use whether an individual continues this habit alone or is assisted by a caregiver. It can also be a less intimidating tool, and therefore encourage this part of an individual’s routine to stay intact.

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Whenever possible, try talking to your loved one about what would make him or her the most comfortable in a personal hygiene routine. Dementia often robs people of their dignity when they can no longer care for themselves. Emphasizing that you are both working together as a team to make decisions on personal care is one way to reassure them that they are still an individual with important feelings and opinions.

Caring for someone with dementia is a challenging, and often an overwhelming task. There are many things you can do to make daily life easier for both you and your loved one, especially when it comes to personal hygiene and grooming. However, it’s also important to take time for yourself, and allow yourself to embrace whatever it is you need to feel – just do your best not to take these feelings out on the dementia sufferer. There is a grieving process that comes with watching someone close to you endure the hardships of illness, and with adjusting to life after the diagnosis. With time, patience and ultimately an acceptance of your new situation, both you and your loved one can live in harmony.

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