My 7-year-old grandson Mattias frequently makes comments or asks questions that get him published in his dad’s writings or at least posted on Facebook. This is the most recent one.
“Dad, how come, when people get older, they smell a little bit worse?”
“Hey, dude, they don’t smell so good when they’re really young either.”
“Daaaaaaddddd! That’s not fair!”
“But isn’t it true?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Mattias, that’s a question that came up a lot in our caregiver support group. We also talked a lot about why their homes or their rooms smelled bad. As group facilitator, I tried to come up with answers and even resorted to Google and Wikipedia. The consensus is that there isn’t an overall reason for that “old” smell, like an aging cellular structure or elderly pheromones. Some articles attributed the smell to oral medications that cause unpleasant body odor or topical ointments that have an unpleasant odor of their own. Most agreed, however, that the biggest culprits are poor hygiene, both personal and household.
I learned more than I wanted to know about the reasons behind those poor hygiene practices during the six years Mom and Dad lived with me. When we moved to Florida, we purposely chose a house with a split plan so each couple could have their private space. Mom and Dad’s “apartment,” as she liked to call it, consisted of a sitting area, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms. At first, I stayed out of their area except for occasional visits. I told myself it was out of respect for their privacy, but there was some avoidance at work there, too. Most of our together time was at meals and in the den after dinner when we all watched TV together. I left the housekeeping of their apartment to them, again telling myself that they needed the feeling of independence that came with the responsibility. But after a few months, unpleasant odors began to creep out their door and permeate the rest of the house. I encouraged them to bathe and clean their rooms more often, but I met the kind of resistance you get from a rebellious teenager. I was frustrated at what seemed like a lazy, stubborn refusal to improve the situation.
Then in 2007 we took our infamous RV trip. Spending 7 weeks in extremely close proximity opened my eyes to some of the reasons behind their refusal. First of all, their memories were much worse than I realized, and they didn’t remember that it had been several days since they bathed or changed their bed or cleaned their toilet. In addition, as people age, they become much less sensitive to the world around them. One of the first senses to go is often the sense of smell. To put it simply, Mom and Dad were not aware that they smelled bad.
There was also an element of fear in their reluctance. Dad was very unsteady on his feet, so stepping in and out of a bathtub was a daunting task. The small shower in the RV with its built-in seat and hand-held sprayer seemed to work pretty well, so when we got home, I changed his bath venue to our bathroom with its walk-in shower. He was, if not enthusiastic, at least more compliant. That worked for a while, but then one day he fell in the shower, and we had to go back to his bathroom. We installed a hand-held sprayer, a bath seat, a non-slip mat, and two grab bars. Before every bath, I instructed him on safe entrance into and exit from the tub and then prayed until he appeared a while later, clean and safe. He sometimes skipped washing his hair, but I took into consideration that his arthritic shoulder probably made that painful and didn’t make an issue of it.
Mom seemed afraid of bath time because of the vulnerability she felt being naked and alone. During our trip I became aware that she was also confused about turning the water on and off and controlling the temperature. I began staying in the bathroom with her to offer encouragement and support, and she did much better. She continued to do well in our shower when we got home, but although she never fell, she got almost as unsteady on her feet as Dad. When their bathroom got its safety makeover, I moved her back there. The process had become so confusing for her, that I bathed her. I usually ended up with water all over the floor and myself and more often than not, an aching back. It was hard for me emotionally as well as physically, but Mom enjoyed the attention and I enjoyed the result, so I kept at it.
Toward the end of our RV trek, we visited my brother for a few days and then left Mom and Dad with him while we drove the rest of the way home by ourselves. It gave Jim some quality time with his parents, and it gave David and me some quality time with each other. When we got home, I took the opportunity to do some deep cleaning on Mom and Dad’s side of the house. Talk about “Aha moments!” The bed hadn’t been changed for way too long, partly because of lack of awareness of the need but also because weak and painful backs made the process difficult. Following the odor trails, I found dirty clothes in the closets, both in piles on the floor and on hangers. I found more dirty clothes in drawers. The only way to separate the clean clothes from the dirty was the unpleasant sniff test, so I washed everything!
After the trip, I tried to be a little more understanding and a little less irritable. Like a mother training her young children, I became very involved in the hygiene routines. I laid out clean clothes, I put toothpaste on the toothbrushes, I supervised regular bath days and bath routines, I included Mom and Dad’s side of the house in my cleaning routines, and I regularly searched for dirty clothes. The results were good and bad. The house and its residents smelled much better, but the added work pushed me more quickly toward caregiver burnout.
Now that I’m approaching the age of Medicare, I’m extremely aware of my own hygiene. We’re going to Pueblo in a few weeks to spend a few days with the grandkids while Christian and Amy go out of town for some R&R. Hey, Mattias. Grandpa David and I promise to take a shower and brush our teeth every day if you will.