Caregiver's Home Companion Caring for someone who has trouble hearing the phone?

Posted April 22, 2005

Ask An Expert

Elderly Care: Giving Sponge Baths and Washing Hair

Q. My mother prefers sponge baths. She is afraid to get into a bathtub -- I have tried. When I shampoo her hair, it is necessary to stand at the kitchen sink, where I have the spray hose to rinse her hair. Is there anything I can get that will let me shampoo her hair while she is in a sitting position, away from the kitchen sink? I also need tips on how to give a sponge bath.

Jeffery H., Granite City, Illinois

A. Sponge baths can be effective between baths or showers. If really necessary, sponge baths can be used in lieu of baths or showers. Rather than struggle with a confused or agitated person in the bathtub, try using the sink and a washcloth for a sponge bath. If the person must be washed in bed, use a wash basin and washcloth for a sponge bath. If the person is not taking regular baths or showers, hygiene requires that sponge baths be administered daily.
Perhaps you might consider taking her to a local beauty shop to have her hair washed and fixed once a week. If she is not comfortable with that, there are probably some local beauticians who will visit the home. They often have equipment that makes washing the hair easier. If you call a few senior centers or local nursing homes that have in-house beauticians, they will probably know who in your local area to refer you to.

You might also consider a hair washing tray. These products are designed to rest on a person's shoulders in a seated position. This keeps the water flowing toward the sink and not onto the floor. In hospitals, these types of trays are used regularly with patients who cannot get out of bed. There are also "dry" shampoos, but they are only a temporary fix, and not as effective.

This answer is provided by Valerie VanBooven, a registered nurse, professional geriatric care manager, author, and professional speaker. She is a leading expert on long-term care planning and crisis management. Valerie is president of Senior Care Solutions, a private geriatric care management practice in the St. Louis area. Her books include Aging Answers: Secrets to Successful Long-Term Care Planning, Caregiving, and Crisis Management. She can be reached at

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