As your loved one ages, it can become much more difficult for them to bathe or shower in the same manner to which they’re accustomed.
They may have trouble getting in and out of the bathtub or shower—and it may even be unsafe to do so. They may not have the core strength to sit on a shower chair at some point. An injury or surgery could also temporarily limit their ability to transfer or get their entire body wet. Or – if they’re bedbound – it may be the only option.
That doesn’t mean you can’t help the senior in your life get squeaky clean, however. Sponge baths are an effective way to wash up, and they aren’t as complicated as they sound.
There are quite a few step-by-step guides available online to help you get started, such as this article from PeaceHealth or this YouTube video. Online caregiver training programs can also provide in-depth instructions. Another excellent resource is, of course, real caregivers!
Many caregivers have been providing this kind of care for years, even decades, and they have a wealth of knowledge that can be helpful when it comes to sponge baths.
Michelle Maldonado, the executive director at Boone Ridge Memory Care, gave this advice to get started:
“Use two basins—one for soapy water and one for clean water. Have heated blankets or towels if possible. Wash one area at a time, covering the rest of the body with the towel or blanket to help with privacy or dignity.”
User germaine2626 explained on this caregiver forum why draping towels or a blanket is so important:
“Think of how a massage therapist keeps your body totally covered up except for the small area currently being massaged.”
Melissa Luarca, who worked as an in-home care provider for years, also gave Seasons these practical tips:
- “Create a system. Have a place for everything, and stick to the routine.”
- “During the sponge bath is when I would ask questions about temperature, if the client is comfortable or if the pressure of the washing is OK. I would also let them know what I will be doing next, unless they are familiar with our routine.”
- “Support your back! For the clients you need to lift or move, be sure to wear a back brace and exercise regularly for a strong foundation.”
Getting past the awkwardness
Bathing another person can feel awkward, but Maldonado and Luarca both pointed out that it’s just as uncomfortable for the person receiving the bath, which is why it’s important to set them at ease.
“Focus on making them feel more comfortable, and it will be easier for you,” Maldonado stated.
Luarca urged caregivers to focus on remaining comforting, as that will help alleviate embarrassment.
Additionally, the Caregiver Foundation offers the following advice on bathing loved ones: “You will have to consciously set aside your feelings and help your loved one with their own. This is not easy for them. Losing the ability to provide personal care for yourself is tough.”
Have a chat first
Should caregivers have a conversation with the care receiver before giving a sponge bath? Luarca affirmed that communication is key:
“Always! Everyone – as we all know – has different needs and abilities.”
She recommends discussing “any skin conditions or sensitivities that require specific care, their hygiene and skin care routines, what getting dressed and undressed looks like for them personally, any physical pain or wounds.”
If you’ve been helping your loved one shower, then you may be familiar with such needs, in which case Maldonado explained, “Let them know that you will be helping them. … Ask them about preferences such as water temperature or routine. Always explain what you are going to do before you do it, and let them be involved as much as possible.”
Remember, just because someone is bedbound or otherwise unable to make it into the shower doesn’t mean they’re unable to do any of their own washing. Many people will still be able to wash their face and parts of their body once you have everything set up for them.
Just because someone is bedbound or otherwise unable to make it into the shower doesn’t mean they’re unable to do any of their own washing.
Frequency of sponge baths
Not bathing often enough can lead to a number of health repercussions, including fungal or bacterial infections of the skin, rashes, worsening psoriasis and eczema, breakdown of the skin and even parasites. So, how often do you need to give your loved one a sponge bath?
While twice a week is a good rule of thumb, a lot depends on the person and their needs. Older adults who are incontinent or immobile – or even sweat a lot – will need to be bathed more often.
Is a sponge bath enough?
Another user on the city-data.com forum, branDcalf, recommended checking with local assisted care facilities about renting shower time once a week or every other week and then relying on sponge baths in the interim.
“The person sits on a large shower chair with wheels and gets rolled to where the shower hose is. The chair has open access for good peri-care,” they wrote.
While regular showers are the gold standard, sometimes they just aren’t possible. And renting shower time might not be feasible or possible for everyone. In those cases, sponge baths are an ideal way to keep your loved one fresh and clean.
“If it is safe to transfer the person to a shower chair or other device, I recommend giving a full shower,” Maldonado said.
As for when it’s not possible to transfer your loved one?
“Bed baths will work.”