I had a reader write in recently and ask me about her grandfather’s fear of water. Although it had started with the shower, the problem had migrated to even brushing his teeth. He was afraid of the water in the sink, not just the water from the shower faucet! She asked how they could solve this issue, and hopefully get him to wash his hands and brush his teeth.
First, I challenged her to help me figure out what the problem actually was. Was it a fear of water or was it a fear of something else, such as being naked in front of people, being too cold/hot, the unnatural feel of water hitting his skin, etc.?
(Let’s also remember that trying to “convince” someone with dementia that they “need to bathe” isn’t going to work. Even if you need to bribe your loved one a little bit, “We’re going to go to your favorite restaurant after this,” or, “I will have cookies for us when we’re done,” that’s okay.)
Here are some solutions, laid out by problem:
FEAR OF WATER
Two potential solutions here, depending on the situation: first, if there is an actual fear of water, it’s probably because your loved one can’t SEE the water. If the water is clear—and I sure hope it is—they may not be able to actually see it. Suddenly, their hand is under the faucet and it’s wet! How creepy and surprising would that be! I recommend filling a bowl with water and even dropping in a little bit of food dye so they can see that there’s water. Try this for teeth brushing or for sipping.
To lessen the surprise factor, switch to a bath. You could even drop a bath bomb in there (like a true Millennial) or wrap a towel around them to ensure that the towel absorbs the feeling of water before their skin does.
UNCOMFORTABLE WITH TEMPERATURE
The towel trick works well here, too. I also recommend warming up the room ahead of time…no one likes taking a shower or bath in a cold room!
DISLIKE OF BEING NUDE
Again, the towel trick is a good one. You can also alleviate this problem by having a bed bath or a bath where they can keep some clothing on, such as a shirt while they’re sitting in a shower chair.
LOSS OF CONTROL
Personally, this would probably be the big one for me if i was living with dementia. Instead of “doing” the shower TO them, involve them in the process. For example, ask your loved one to “help you” finish the task. “Can you help me? Can you wash your face while I wash your feet?” and then some encouragement, like, “Wow, that’s great, this is so much faster with your help! I couldn’t do this without you.”