I care about you and you stink…
The first time I had to to tell someone they needed a bath, I was mortified. I had to do it again recently and it was much easier.
In high school, my mom and I lived in a big, two-story house built in the 1920s. It was huge and there were more rooms than we needed. My mom’s paycheck just barely covered our bills so she rented out the extra rooms.
We had many residents – a teenager who needed a break from home, a college professor who stayed with us during the week to avoid commuting, a middle-aged guy starting over with a new career…
Having residents means having rules. I watched my mom establish policies and routines for managing the residents. Whenever a new issue presented itself, she used open dialogue and respect for each individual to reach resolution. She seemed so confident and comfortable. Then, one day she made me do it and I felt paralyzed.
Let me back up. There was one resident I will never forget – Jimmy Walker. Jimmy was in his 80s and a gifted story teller. He loved talking about his days in Vaudeville. He was also a ladies’ man and flirted with everyone. He loved giving hugs and sneaking in a kiss on the cheek. There was one small problem. He wasn’t bathing or washing his clothes often enough and he smelled awful.
I complained about Jimmy’s hygiene to my mom. To my horror, she said that if I felt it was an issue, then I needed to take responsibility and confront him about it. I was mortified. I did not want to have this conversation.
I knew he cared about me and I didn’t want to be the one to tell him. It felt wrong. I fretted over it for days before I got the courage to talk to Jimmy. I remember my pulse was racing and my face was red.
I can’t say the situation improved 100% but Jimmy did make an effort. He later told my mom how grateful he was that I told him. In my head I knew that my words had come from a kind and loving place but in my heart it felt like I had betrayed him.
Fast forward 30 years…my father-in-law is now living with us. Like Jimmy, he forgets to bathe and change his clothes. He doesn’t realize that he smells bad. I understand because I can go for days without a shower before I notice my own smell. Fortunately, I still have the wherewithal to take a shower regularly. Sometimes my father-in-law does, sometimes he does not. I hear this is a common problem for people like him who have Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful he still has the ability to take a shower on his own and his willing to do it.
The last couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about Jimmy and how my mother made me have that conversation. I recently had the same conversation with my father-in-law. I didn’t fret this time but I did take time to think about how to approach the topic. I needed a way to both let him know that he smelled bad and help him reach a solution.
This time, I used a prop – a calendar. First, I circled the date he had last taken a shower. I showed him and he agreed because it was that same day and he had just come out of the shower. Then I explained that he needed to take a shower at least every other day in the hot summer or he would smell bad.
By using the calendar, the shower became a task to mark off on the calendar. The focus was on the calendar not on him. Instead of saying “you smell bad, take a shower” I could now point to the calendar and say “Oh look, today is the day for your shower!”
The conversation I was mortified to have when I was 15 seemed so easy this time. I thought about what was different. Sure, I’m more confident now and that is part of it. Also, by adding the calendar, the conversation was no longer about what he didn’t do or forgot to do. Instead, we could both focus on what he could do.
There’s one more thing. When I was 15, I equated smelling bad with a character default. Something like, You smell bad therefore you are bad. I think that is why I didn’t want to tell Jimmy. I was afraid he would think I was judging him, and I was. Now I think differently. Smelling bad simply means you need a bath.
My father-in-law is a really cool guy AND he has Alzheimer’s AND he sometimes forgets to take a shower or change his clothes AND he sometimes smells bad AND it’s OK. I still care about him. I care about him and I can tell him if he stinks.
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About the Author:
Hi! I'm Marci. When I'm not writing, building websites, or coaching clients, I love walking the streets of Japan and discovering spirit in all shapes and forms. Here on the blog, you'll also get a peek into what it is like to live with and care for my Japanese father-in-law who has Alzheimer’s. Enjoy!