11 Tips for Bathing a Person Living with Dementia

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By Valerie FeurichApril 21st, 2021

11 Tips for Bathing a Person Living with Dementia

Strategies for creating calm and comfort during bath time

Do you care for a person living with Alzheimers disease or another form of dementia? Has bath time been a struggle for you both?

It’s easy to understand why that may be. All of your adult life you have bathed or showered in privacy, using a routine that fits your personal preferences best.

Now imagine someone else trying to undress and bathe you. How would you feel?

For most people, bathing is a highly personal matter, and that likely will not change if the person is living with dementia.

To help you make bathing a little less stressful for you both, here is a list of 11 practical tips you may want to try:

1. Consider their preferences:
When living independently, did the person you are caring for prefer to take a bath or a shower? Did they prefer to wash up early in the morning or in the evening? And which toiletries did they like to use?

The more you know and the more you can follow their preferred hygiene routine, the more natural and comfortable it will feel for your person living with dementia.

2. Respect their privacy:
If you needed to undress, would you prefer to have a large group of people in the room or rather as few people as possible? Chances are, you’d be more comfortable with fewer people in the room.

Well, this likely preference does not change only because a person is living with dementia. The more people who are in the room, the more awkward and uncomfortable the experience will be. So, if at all possible, have only you and the person you are caring for in the room. If you do need more support, you may want to consider tip #3.
3. Consider a care partner of the same gender:
If you needed to remove all of your clothes in front of other people, would you feel a little less uncomfortable if they were of the same gender as you? Chances are, you answered yes.

With the exception of having a spouse or possibly a close relative do the care, most people living with dementia (and those without!) are likely to feel more comfortable undressing in front of a person of the same gender.
4. Try to put yourself in their shoes:
You may have noticed a pattern in the above tips. What am I referring to? Questions like how would you feel in this situation can help you put yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes. Why do questions like these matter?

Because one powerful way to create a more understanding and compassionate bathing experience for you both is to visualize yourself in the role of the person being bathed, and asking how you would feel if you were them. Empathy is a crucial piece to compassionate dementia care, and taking a step back and trying to experience the situation from their point of view can help you develop a more respectful care approach.
5. Have your supplies nearby and ready:
Getting up and leaving the person alone during the bathing session can create feelings of uncertainty and discomfort for the person living with dementia. (If you get disconnected from the person you might even have to start all over again as the momentum has been lost.)

So you may want to try to plan ahead and keep a stash of clean towels and other needed supplies within arm’s reach for an uninterrupted, smoother bathing experience for you both.
6. Heat up the room:
Imagine sitting in a very cold room and being asking to take your clothes off. What would that feel like? Would you be more likely to want to keep on the clothes that give you warmth? You likely answered yes.

Most people don’t like to take off their clothes in a cold room, so it’s up to you as the care partner to turn the heat up so the space is nice and cozy.

Yes, you may start to sweat as the care partner in the hot room, but you’ll increase the chances of a smoother bathing experience. Why?

Because a hot room will make it less likely that the person will resist taking their clothes off; they might even want to!
7. Allow for some modesty:
If the person in your care feels very uncomfortable at the idea of taking their clothes off, you may want to try taking some warm towels (fresh out of the dryer) and draping one around their shoulders and one over their lap to create a sense of privacy.

Now you can wet them through the towel, or even through their underwear if it makes them more comfortable to leave it on at first. Once the towel (and their clothes) are wet, they are more likely to want to take them off.
8. Get in a non-threatening position:
As dementia progresses, a person’s peripheral vision (how much they can see out of the corner of their eyes) gets smaller and smaller.

To help you understand how this may feel or affect things, try taking your hands and wrapping them around your eyes as shown in the graphic below. (Note: Each GEMS State below represents a different cognitive state as dementia fluctuates throughout the day or the diseases progresses.)
Now, look around yourself, to the left and the right, top and bottom. Do you notice how much visual information you’re now missing? Having this limited visual field, how would you feel if someone walked up from behind or your side? If you heard them, you’d likely turn your head. And if you didn’t hear them approach, you’d likely end up being startled.

So, next time you’re approaching a person living with dementia, make sure not to come at them from behind or the side. Instead, you’ll want to approach a person from the front so that you’re in their visual field and, once you’ve received their permission to come near, crouch or sit down (at or below eye level) next to them with your body turned to the side.

Why? Because staying right in front of a person can be seen as confrontational, and by turning your body sideways you’re perceived as less threatening, increasing your chances for a calm bathing experience.

9. Use strong visual cues:

Imagine someone coming up to you and, without asking or giving you a cue, started to unbutton your blouse or unzip your pants. How would that feel?

As dementia progresses, a person’s language comprehension decreases. What that means is that the person living with dementia may have a harder time processing what you say, or may need a little longer to do so.

To help the person living with dementia understand what you are about to do before you do it, try adding some pauses to allow them to process what you just said. In addition, try pairing strong visual cues with short and poignant verbal cues. As an example, mimic washing your armpits and tell the person “I’m going to wash right there,” while pointing at their armpit before you move to touch the person.

That way the person is more likely to know what you are about to do, and less likely to be startled or respond negatively to your actions.

10. Maintain a physical connection:
To help the person feel connected with you, you may want to try placing one hand on their shoulder and letting it rest there while you’re using the other hand to help the person wash. This creates a sense of security and comfort for the person you are caring for.

(Try this for yourself: Have a friend or coworker mimic doing personal care on you. Now have them place their hand on your shoulder and repeat the same task. Can you feel the difference?)

In addition, you may want to try using Teepa Snow’s Hand-under-Hand®  technique and move the person’s hand together with yours to help them feel more in control.
11. Wash their head last, if not later:
Depending on how the bathing experience goes, you may want to wait and wash the person’s head last. To do so, you can lay a washcloth with shampoo on it on the person’s head (shampoo-side down), and gently wet their head through the fabric. Doing this will avoid the rubbing motion and friction that can be unpleasant or cause irritation.

If, however, the person feels too uncomfortable or the bathing experience hasn’t gone smoothly, sometimes it may be better to let it go and consider washing their face and hair at a later time when they are clothed. You can do so in a sink, try dry shampoo, or take them to a beauty salon.
Bathing can be a stressful situation for both the person living with dementia and you as the care partner alike. But, with a few small tweaks and considerations, you may be able to increase the person’s level of comfort, creating a more enjoyable experience for you both.

Would you like to learn even more?
Watch the video excerpt of Teepa Snow's DVD The Art of Caregiving below.
Download Print-Version

9 Comments on “11 Tips for Bathing a Person Living with Dementia”

  1. I enjoyed the video. Especially the part about leaving their undergarment on and putting a towel around them and showering them that way.

  2. Excellent presentation. Yes they are still in there. Ms. Snow is the guru of taking care of a person with dementia.

  3. Brilliant article- would be very beneficial to have as part of induction for new staff, as the tips would not only help with dementia person’s but also other person’s with similar preferences and other diagnosis.

  4. Brilliant article- would be very beneficial to have as part of induction for new staff, as the tips would not only help with dementia person’s but also other person’s with similar preferences and other diagnosis.

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