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When Personal Hygiene Takes A Back Seat

Mom’s personal hygiene has declined more than usual lately.  She hugged me hello, and both she and her apartment smelled off.  I was also very troubled to see the sweat suit she was wearing be riddled with holes and food stains.

The strongest source of the smell came mainly from her closet.  Then I looked around realizing everything in her apartment needed a good scrubbing, cleaning, vacuuming, and even a steam clean.

‘How did this happen under my nose’ I thought (pun intended), ‘I visit almost every day!’  I liken it to haircuts – suddenly, whammo, one day I need a haircut.

There is no failure on Brookdale Senior Living’s part.  They keep her toilet and shower clean, her bathroom floor mopped and her carpet vacuumed.  Brookdale does her laundry, sheets and towels while I do a deep clean about every 4 months.  Maybe it is time to up her level of care?

Problem with that is Mom would be offended and defensive about someone assisting her with showering and dressing.  She is still capable – she isn’t wearing mismatched clothing, and she just needs to shower.  

The next day I began cleaning.  I had a few hours to myself because after her breakfast she takes a walk, then does her crossword puzzle in the lobby or sun room.

When Mom returned, she side-stepped around the vacuum cleaners and bucket full of cleaning supplies without connecting any dot.  She sat down on the couch and asked how I was and what I was up to that day.

The loads of clothing by the door, however, did get her attention and she asked about them.  “I’m cleaning up your apartment a little, Mom. I’m also taking some clothing items home to launder myself,” I said.  She looked confused by this. “Why?” she said rather defensively. I took the opportunity to tell a quick “Gram” story.

Gram, Mom’s mom, also lived at an assisted living residence.  She was always very self-conscious, often asking me, “Vic, do I smell like an old person?”  She never did, but it was sweet how she asked.  While Mom was giggling over what a typical a comment that was from her own mother, I gently segued into my observations of her own personal cleanliness.

She was surprised at what I was telling her.  “Huh!” she says, “I just don’t smell that at all!”  Then a horrified look came over face, “Do I smell like urine or poo?” “Thankfully no, Mom,” I reassured her, “You’re not there yet.  …but I am!” I said, lightening the mood.  I continued dryly, “I’m wearing Depends as we speak –  Frank and Marco had to have this same sit-down chat with me last week.  Can you believe that?!  My own dogs!!”  That cracked her up.  I then showed her a note I taped next to the shower that “Frank” made, “Grandma, please shower today.  Sincerely, Francis Sinatra.”  “Well,” Mom replied, “You tell Frankie ‘Thank You’ from Grandma!”

God bless her for taking it so well.

I talked to management when I left that day.  Brookdale concurred her appearance and body odor had been worsening but their efforts to get Mom to shower had been met with less than kind remarks.  I told Brookdale I talked with her myself, put a note by her shower from her “grand-dog” to “take a shower today,” mentioned I had thoroughly cleaned and steam-cleaned her apartment, and was taking all her clothing home in shifts to be laundered or thrown out.  Brookdale also agreed that Mom doesn’t need assistance IN the shower or help dressing, she simply needs overseeing.

Over the next few days I returned her laundered clothes and was thrilled find her apartment smelling very clean and fresh.  Each time I came by, Mom had showered, her hair was styled, she had on clean clothes, and was even wearing a hint of make-up!

What Is True for Me:  Love has many forms of care.  Having the discussion and problem-solving personal hygiene is not an easy topic.  It’s right up there with taking the car keys and having to move away from home.

I expect one day, Mom will need assistance showering and dressing, but for now, our solution is simply to supervise.  This will work until it doesn’t work.  And then we will shift our care to accommodate the next change, which can very well be tomorrow or this afternoon.

Failing hygiene is disheartening.  Like so many other things that simply vanish with dementia, I remember my mother as a sharp dresser who cared about her appearance and the cleanliness of her home.  I believe she still does care, but dementia voids many filters.

Over time, this disease has robbed her of her sense of smell and taste.  It has robbed her of a natural gait.  It has taken away discernment of every kind, and it is why she can wear a sweat-suit that is far from clean and suitable.

Love makes the effort to help.  Yet love guarantees nothing in return.  There is no part of dementia that is okay with me, nevertheless I will try.  It’s just what love does.

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