Published in the Rains County Leader on March 13, 2018:
Last week I warned that my mind might be a little foggy from the time change when it came time to write this week’s column. Of course, it could also be the allergy/cold medicine I’ve been taking for the last three weeks. Regardless of the cause, I was having trouble coming up with anything readable, so I’m recycling a blog post from several years ago that has been an all-time reader favorite.
When my grandson was 7 years old, he asked his dad why older people sometimes smell bad. That question came up a lot in the caregiver support group we attended in Florida. We also talked a lot about why the homes or rooms of the elderly smell 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 certain oral medications or topical ointments. Most agreed, however, that the biggest culprits are poor hygiene, both personal and household.
I learned more than I wanted to know about poor hygiene practices during the six years Mom and Dad lived with us. When we moved to Florida, we 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 and that they needed the independence and responsibility, but there was some avoidance going on. After a few months, though, 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, their memories were much worse than I realized, and they didn’t remember that it had been several days since they bathed, changed their sheets, or cleaned their toilet. In addition, as people age, many of them lose their sense of smell. Mom and Dad were simply 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 scary. The small shower in the RV with its built-in seat and hand-held sprayer worked pretty well, so when we got home, I changed his bath venue to our bathroom with its walk-in shower. That worked for a while, but then 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.
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. When we returned home, she never fell in our shower, but she became almost as unsteady on her feet as Dad. When their bathroom received its safety makeover, I moved her back there, and I began to bathe her. I usually ended up with water all over the floor and myself, and I usually had 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.
The last week of our RV trek, we left Mom and Dad with my brother and drove the rest of the way home by ourselves. When we got home, we had a few days before Jim sent Mom and Dad home on a plane, so I took the opportunity to do some deep cleaning on their side of the house. It was an eye-opening experience. I knew the bed clothes needed to be washed from the spread down, but by following 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 lot less irritable. I also became very involved in hygiene routines. I laid out clean clothes, put toothpaste on toothbrushes, supervised bath routines, included their side of the house in my cleaning routines, and 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 can no longer deny that I’m one of the older people, I’m extremely aware of my own hygiene. When we go visit Christian and his family, I make take extra care to avoid that “old people smell.” Of course, younger people don’t always smell so great either, so I can only hope my now 14-year-old grandson will do the same.
Free! Monday thru Friday this week!