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Help! My Mother Won’t Change Her Clothes!



For what it’s worth, you are not alone.  And I mean if you are the caregiver of someone with dementia who refuses to participate in one or more aspects of self care, please know that your problem is nearly universal.   Sometimes it helps to know what you’re up against, and to remind yourself that this behavior is directly linked to the area of the brain being affected by the disease.  This is powerful information when you find yourself frustrated and nearly despondent.

Blame the disease, not the person.

There is plenty of information on the internet regarding this issue, and many do a great job explaining what possible factors could be contributing to resistant behavior.  Here’s what they all boil down to:

1. ” I don’t want to.”

  • Problem
  • Area of brain affected
    • Frontal lobe disease process
  • Approaches
    • Reward
    • “Let’s wash up and celebrate with a bowl of ice cream.”
    • Try these techniques to improve cooperation.
    • Buy several identical outfits

2. ” I don’t have to.”

  • Problem
    • Lack of insight
    • Resistance to help
    • Personality changes
  • Area of brain affected
    • Frontal lobe disease process
  • Approaches
    • Bargain
    • “It will take 3 minutes, and then I’ll leave you alone.”
    • Try to appeal to your needs, “Please just do it for me.”  “If you don’t do this today, I’ll be in trouble.”  “Today is the only day I can do laundry, so let’s get out of those clothes so I can wash them.”
    • Give her control of the decision.  Offer choice of when, “Ok, would you prefer to do it now, or in an hour.”  Remember not to ask the open ended question: “When do you want to change your clothes?”  Always offer a choice of two reasonable options.

3.  “I already did it.”

  • Problem
    • Memory loss
    • Reasoning doesn’t work
  • Area of brain affected
    • Hippocampus, temporal lobe disease process
  • Approaches
    • Distract
    • Daily task checklist (is it checked off today?)
    • Don’t argue or try to prove her wrong.
    • “There’s some food on your shirt.  Let me get it in the wash before it stains.”
    • “Let’s go to lunch after your doctor’s appointment.  You’ll need to wear something nice.”
    • Make the task about something else, “Let me check your skin.”  I have to put this cream on your back.”

At the end of the day, remind yourself that this issue is not worth battling over.  In most cases, it’s temporary.  Resistance to self care will lessen as the disease progresses.  This is both a good and a bad thing.  Usually there is one caregiver who is more successful than another, and what works one day may not work the next.   Avoid the use of guilt or shame, and punishment and adverse consequences.  The bad guy is the disease, and beyond voluntary control of the person with dementia.

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  1. Great info Sue! I love the checklist idea!

    • Thanks for this helpful information. Before we knew she had Alzheimer’s disease, my mother-in-law did the same thing. The problem with her was that she didn’t bath like she should. She got to be pretty ripe smelling after a while. At first, we thought she was just being lazy or stubborn because we couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t “want” to bath. When we found out she had the disease, we also found out that one of the signs in the early stages is that the person affected doesn’t remember to bath or they develop a mindset that they really don’t want to do it. It’s so sad. Looking back, there were other signs of the disease too. She would forget a lot of things, not want to talk about her memory issues (insisting that there was nothing wrong with her mind), and she even forgot how to call home one day while she was out doing errands and her car broke down. Thank God an officer was near-by and helped her get home. We had to take away her car keys shortly after that. Her disease is now in the late stages. She is bed-ridden and in need of constant care. She can no longer do anything for herself. It’s a horrible thing to see every day. I don’t envy anyone who has to deal with any aspect of the disease. I pray they find a cure one day.

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