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How to help someone you care for keep clean

Advice on washing, bathing, laundry and general hygiene, maintaining dignity and continence services.

Keeping yourself or someone you care for clean is essential. Poor hygiene can cause discomfort, skin complaints and infections, and can lower self-esteem.

Staying clean: the basics

To keep someone clean, make sure they:

  • wash their hands after going to the toilet
  • wash their genitals and bottom area every day
  • wash their face every day
  • have a bath or shower at least twice a week
  • brush their teeth twice a day

Regular dental checks are also important. Find out more about dental treatment for people with special needs.

How to help someone with washing and bathing

For most people, washing is a very private activity. If you're helping someone wash or have a bath, be sensitive and try to maintain their dignity.

To make washing and bathing as appealing and comfortable as possible:

  • use pleasant-smelling shampoo, bubble bath or soap
  • play music they like and are familiar with
  • if the person you're washing is confused, explain what's happening as you go along
  • be sensitive to their mood

If you're caring for someone who does not want to wash, try getting them involved with activities that include having a shower, such as swimming. It may help if they see other people showering.

Maintaining their dignity

Be aware of the emotional state of the person you care for when you're helping them wash. For example, some people are anxious about deep bath water. Bathroom and shower adaptations, such as seats or recliners, can reduce anxiety. Reassure the person that you will not let them get hurt.

Overhead showers can be frightening to some people. If you have no bath, or there's a good reason for showering rather than bathing, use a handheld shower.

Ask the person how they would prefer to be helped and allow them as much independence as you think is safe.

If they had a routine before you began caring for them, find out what it was and stick to it as much as you can. Find out which shampoo, shower gel or soap they prefer to make the experience more familiar to them.

Many people become self-conscious when undressed in front of others. Be sensitive to the situation and approach it in the way you think is best.

The person you care for may feel isolated if you leave them alone – bring clothes and towels with you so you don't have to leave the bathroom if they do not want you to.

Safety tips

If you or the person you're looking after has limited mobility or problems balancing, make sure:

  • the floor is not slippery – dry it if necessary 
  • the room is a comfortable temperature 
  • the water is comfortably warm – older people particularly feel the cold, so bear this in mind when adjusting the temperature
  • the locks are removed from the door – you or the person you care for may want privacy, but other people may need access in an emergency

If you're caring for someone, make sure to protect your own safety – for example, by getting advice on helping someone get in and out of the bath. See more on how to lift, move and handle someone else.

Giving a bed bath

If the person you care for cannot move or has extremely limited mobility, you may need to give them a bed bath. Be extra careful when you move or handle them.

Getting help with hygiene

If you're finding it difficult to cope with washing or general hygiene, contact your local authority, a local carers' organisation, or call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

Alzheimer's Society has more tips on how dementia affects washing and dressing

Continence services

While someone may not have a problem controlling their bowel or bladder, a mobility problem can make it difficult to get to the toilet in time.

Continence problems can cause skin irritation and infection, as well as embarrassment and loss of confidence.

Your GP can advise you on NHS services that can help. They can provide support, advice and information, and may refer you to continence advisers or specialists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and dietitians.

A continence adviser may be able to provide many small items and other equipment that can help with continence, including:

  • plastic or PVC covers to protect beds
  • disposable or washable continence pads
  • waterproof pants

Your social services department should be able to provide small aids and adaptations for the home, including:

  • hand rails
  • commodes
  • raised toilet seats

You can also buy continence equipment directly. The Bladder & Bowel Community has a directory of incontinence products.

Laundry services

Some social services departments provide a laundry service for people who have incontinence or bowel and bladder problems. In addition, some local authorities provide laundry services for people who find it difficult to manage their laundry.

Ask your social services department if they provide this service. Your local council will usually carry out a needs assessment to work out what the best service is for you.

Some councils make a small charge for their laundry service, or only launder large items such as bedding.

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