CareAcademy Blog

How to Help an Adult with Personal Hygiene

This is a multi-part series to help caregivers learn how to assist older adults with their personal care. Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs, are basic self-care tasks. In this part, we focus on aiding an elder with personal hygiene. Good personal hygiene is one of best ways to keep an older adult healthy. It can also help make an older adult feel good about themselves; so encourage them to be well groomed. Remember, like everything else, that independence and self-care is the goal, even if it takes longer. For all aspects of personal hygiene, wash your hands before and after any activities, wear gloves, ensure the older adult’s privacy, clearly explain everything you are about to do, and encourage them to perform their own care as much as possible.

Aiding an Elder with Personal Hygiene

Assist with bath or shower

A bath can help the older adult to relax. Older adults have sensitive skin that is prone to dryness, so they often may not need bathing more than once or twice a week. As always, listen and try to accommodate what the older adult wants in terms of the routine. Before you start, make sure the bathroom is a comfortable temperature and get the items needed (eg. gloves, soap, washcloths, bath towels, clean clothing and any required safety equipment such as grab bars). Make sure there is a non-slip mat on the bottom of the shower or tub and on the floor as they step out to prevent falls. Place a shower bench or seat in the shower so the older adult can sit down while he/she showers. Next, turn on warm, not hot, water. Check the water temperature and water pressure and make adjustments before the older adult gets into the tub or shower. Never turn on hot water once the older adult is in the tub or shower. Assist the older adult to remove clothing and to step into bath or shower, using assistive devices and hand rails if required. Use a gentle non-irritating soap, such as Dove. Wash face first to feet; perineal (or genital/buttocks) care is last.

Assisting with sponge baths

If an older adult is not able to use a tub or shower but can still wash themselves to some degree, you can provide a washbowl or help them with using the sink, either while sitting or standing. These alternatives help the older adult move at their own pace while giving them independence. Get the items needed (eg. gloves, washbasin, soap, washcloths, face towel, bath towels, clean clothing). As always, ensure the older adult has both respect and privacy. Put on gloves and fill basin with warm water. Wash face without soap, starting with each eye from the inside corner. Pat dry. Wash shoulders to feet; then wash back, buttocks, and thighs. Finally, wash perineal area. Towel dry, remove gloves and wash hands.

Assisting with shampooing hair

Like bathing or showering, washing hair daily is not necessary, but should be done at least once  a week. Make sure to use a mild shampoo. Since washing hair can be time consuming and tiring for the older adult, you might consider doing it on a non-bath day. A dry shampoo can work well if the older adult wants to wash their hair without taking a bath or shower. Before brushing or washing hair, check the scalp and hair to see if you need to make changes in anything, like the type of shampoo. Brush or comb hair every day to help distribute natural oils to the ends of the hair shafts.

Assisting with oral hygiene

Good oral hygiene is important for older adults, particularly because they are more prone to problems with the teeth, gums, and lips, and at the same time, they are less able to detect pain than younger adults. Older adults produce less saliva, which helps to clean the teeth. Poor mouth care can result in mouth sores, bad breath, and poor appetite, which can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. It is extremely important that you encourage the older adult to brush their teeth at least once a day. Make sure the older adult sees a dentist regularly and any dentures should be checked regularly to ensure proper fit. When assisting with brushing teeth, wash your hands and get items needed (eg. toothbrush, toothpaste, glass of cool water, small basin or plastic bowl, face towel, paper towels, gloves). Put on gloves and ensure that the older adult is sitting upright. Place a towel over older adult’s chest. Assist older adult to brush teeth and clean tongue, encouraging self-care. Provide water for the older adult to rinse their mouth. Hold basin or cup to their chin to allow older adult to spit. Make sure to examine the older adult’s mouth for any signs of redness, swelling, bleeding, sores, or loose teeth. Dentures should be cleaned at least once a day to prevent staining, bad breath, and gum irritation. Finally, remove gloves and wash your hands. Aiding an elder with personal hygiene is key to their health and self confidence. Continue to let them do as much as possible on their own. 

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Dr. Reddy is a specialist in Internal Medicine & Geriatric Medicine. She holds appointments at Harvard Medical School & Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston, MA. She has seen the struggles that families and caregivers go through when caring for adults. Through CareAcademy, she intends to improve people's lives. Dr. Reddy's research is published as journal articles and book chapters. She has also authored a book for family caregivers.

Madhuri ReddyHow to Help an Adult with Personal Hygiene

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