As our parents and other loved ones age, it’s inevitable that at some point, we’ll need to offer caregiving in some way, whether it’s balancing a checkbook or accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment.
Yet, some of those caregiving duties can lead to uncomfortable situations, especially when it comes to caring for someone of the opposite sex—a daughter helping her father get dressed, for example, or a son helping his mother get up from the toilet. All of a sudden, the difficulties of performing personal caregiving duties are magnified.
Of course, as a caregiver, you know the responsibility for many of these duties fall on your shoulders—and are inescapable. Learn how to manage these potentially uncomfortable tasks so both of you can feel better about them.
Managing personal hygiene and bathing or showering
Cleaning, bathing and oral hygiene are all daily activities that need to be managed by caregivers to keep their loved ones healthy and comfortable. When caring for someone of the opposite sex, it’s a good idea to let them do as much as they can on their own before stepping in to help. But when you do need to assist, consider a few ways to make it easier on both of you:
- Always make sure to ask permission before doing any personal hygiene care.
- When you become aware your loved one needs assistance, be genuine and relaxed, and this will help them stay calm and feel less awkward while you do what needs to be done.
- Tell your loved one what you’ll do before you do it so they aren’t startled or surprised. For example, tell them, “Now, I’m going to wash your neck,” before you touch the washcloth to their body. Both the sound of your soothing voice and the gentle touch of the washcloth to their skin can make them – and you – feel calmer.
- Let them dry themselves off, brush their hair and moisturize their skin as much as possible, and then take over when they have finished what they can do.
Managing toileting and undergarments
There may be no more submissive situation for an older adult than having someone of the opposite sex change their disposable undergarment. Take these steps to reduce the potential for a difficult situation between you:
- If your loved one can do most of the work themselves, let them.
- Be ready for the final pull of the undergarment up around their waist or over their feet when they let you know they need you.
- Have your loved one face away from you to prevent invading their privacy more than you have to.
- If you don’t need to be in the restroom the entire time your loved one is in there, stay nearby for any emergencies.
If your loved one needs assistance from start to finish, remind them their safety is more important than anything—including their modesty (and your discomfort).
Getting dressed and undressed presents unique challenges for opposite sex caregivers, but doing it in steps can make it less of an intimate act and more of an item to cross off the to-do list.
- Set clothing out for the day and allow your older adult to do as much as possible on their own.
- If help is needed, take off or put on one item at a time, leaving as little skin exposed as possible at each step in the process.
- When changing undergarments, do it from behind your loved one.
- Look away when dealing with the most private parts of the body.
Long-term caregiving needs long-term solutions
For long-term caregivers for a person of the opposite sex, these types of daily interactions need careful and gentle handling to avoid making a potentially tricky situation even more complicated than it needs to be.
As Tia Walker, co-author of The Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love, writes, “Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we never thought possible.”
Focusing on what a difference you’re making in your loved one’s life can make the awkward moments a little less uncomfortable.
Caregiver story: The added challenge of caring for the memory impaired
Certified coach and author Rayna Neises experienced caring for both of her parents when they had Alzheimer’s disease—20 years apart. Her mother got sick when Rayna was 16, and Rayna spent the next few years taking care of her mother’s most intimate needs, including bathing and managing her toilet schedule. “The difference between caring for my mom and dad is that I never knew my mom when I was an adult,” she said.
Caring for her father was a different story. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Rayna began to stay at his home, hours away from hers, three days a week and every other weekend. Though she brought in paid help, there were times when no one showed up for their scheduled shifts. Although Rayna could never imagine bathing and cleaning her father, sometimes she had no choice, especially when he had a toilet accident. There was a lot of emotional upheaval tied to caring for her father, and at times he would get defensive when she’d try to help him.
What Rayna understood was that she needed to be loving but firm. The first time she wrapped her arms around him to calm him down, he immediately stiffened up but eventually relaxed into her embrace. Rayna said, “Daddy, I love you, and I’m here to help you, and you’re OK.” As he relaxed, her father asked, “What do you need me to do?” That exchange changed how they interacted – at least most of the time – going forward.
What Rayna realized was the awkwardness, she said, was, “More about me than about him, though I didn’t find it as awkward as I expected to because I wasn’t going to leave him to fend for himself.”