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Published December 17, 2011, 11:30 PM

Bradley Bursack: Husband’s refusal to bathe is wearing out his wife

Dear Carol: My 93-year-old husband has dementia. He’s worn the same clothes for a week and I’m sick of him being dirty and smelly. How do I get him to change clothes and take a bath?

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: My 93-year-old husband has dementia. He’s worn the same clothes for a week and I’m sick of him being dirty and smelly. How do I get him to change clothes and take a bath?

He’s having more incontinence problems, too. We have a bath lift chair and he used to be agreeable about using it, but now he refuses. I’m 76, and have my own health problems. Since he’s often up at night, I get little sleep. I’ve wanted to keep him at home, and hate to make the decision to move him to a nursing home because of hygiene, but I can’t cope with all of this much longer. My daughter helps when she can, but most of it is left to me. – Edna

Dear Edna: This is a very common, but frustrating, problem for caregivers of people with dementia.

Not bathing daily isn’t going to kill your husband, but there’s a time when cleanliness is necessary for health. You also must have him reasonably clean for your own mental health.

Your husband could be confused about the bathing process which can make him fear the process, or he could just forget how long it’s been since he’s bathed. He also could be using refusal as a form of control.

As I see it, you have two choices. One is to bring in a caregiver from an in-home care agency for baths. Sometimes people will bathe with the help of a person who seems like a nurse or medical staff, when they won’t take a bath with the help of a family member. With adult children caregivers, sometimes modesty is the problem, because the elder doesn’t feel comfortable having their child help them bathe. Since this is your husband, I’d be more inclined to think he refuses because the “option” of taking a bath seems like one thing he can control. Either way, he may be more willing to accept help from a hired caregiver.

I do think you need to start looking for a facility. You aren’t young yourself, and there’s only so much you can take before your own health is undermined. You need to get quality sleep. In many ways, you can be a better caregiver for your husband if you are rested and get a reprieve from daily chores, which you’d have if you had him in a good care center. At the very least, please start to look at facilities as a backup option. Your health is already being impaired, and you won’t be able to help him at all if you become incapacitated.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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