Managing washing and dressing difficulties

Kirsty Stephenson
December 20, 2021
January 9, 2022

Washing, bathing, personal grooming and dressing can become difficult for people with dementia. Occupational therapist Kate Legg offers some practical advice to help you in your caring role.

What can you do if someone with dementia won’t get washed and dressed or change clothes?

Difficulties with washing and dressing is one of the most common issues raised when we talk to carers who are looking after someone with dementia. Confronting these difficulties ‘head on’ often leads to further stress, distress and arguments. By thinking about the reasons why the problems are occurring is often a more helpful approach. Once you recognise the reasons why someone is not washing or dressing, you can put in place practical solutions to help you both.

Here are some examples:

Possible difficulty:

Remembering where things are kept. Some people find it hard to remember what is in cupboards or drawers or behind closed doors.

Things that might help:

Lay out clothes the night before; or have a smaller collection of clothes on display. If possible take off wardrobe doors.

Possible difficulty:

The person is wearing clothes again that they have taken off without realising they are dirty or have been worn before.

Things that might help:

Collect up clothes and put in the wash without making it obvious. Lay out clean clothes.

Possible difficulty

The person realises that they can’t do the task like they used to, and are frustrated, and anxious about it.

Things that might help:

If possible make the task simpler by having clothes that are easier to put on, eg no buttons, and try elasticated waists. Be reassuring if you can and make the activity more fun by suggesting a pamper session or doing things together.

Possible difficulty

The person needs help but won’t accept it from you.

Things that might help:

Can someone else help? Often people are more accepting of help from people they are not as close to. Do they need to do the task as often? Would they be able to have a shower every few days instead of every day?

Possible difficulty:

The person is struggling with operating the shower or co-ordinating putting on clothes, or following instructions.

Things that might help:

Gentle guidance, turn the shower on for them before they get in. Use lots of non verbal demonstrations and or simple instructions. Allow time for someone to process each stage of the task, don’t rush.

Possible difficulty:

Physically accessing the bath or shower.

Things that might help:

Ask for an Occupational Therapy assessment from your memory team or from adult social care. There may be pieces of equipment or adaptations that would help.

We understand that it can be very distressing for carers to see changes in the person they care for. Changes in the persons appearance may lead to negative feelings as these changes can challenge your own moral code. Focussing too much on these changes or excessively ruminating can develop negative thinking patterns and possibly guarded interactions or excessive conflict. This will undermine any positive approach that could help you and the person that you care for and increase the risk of more stress and distress.

These are just a few suggestions about what may help, but please ask for advice and support, there is no easy answer and what works one day may not work on another. It’s important that you share your concerns so that you are not overwhelmed and can be reassured that you are doing your best.

More practical tips

Read more about dealing with Everyday Challenges (Opens in a new browser tab) when caring for someone with dementia.

Dementia can affect people’s relationship with food in a number of ways, when it comes to both preparing and eating meals – Caring about mealtimes and swallowing (Opens in a new browser tab)


Kate Legg is an Associate Practitioner with Dementia Carers Count. Kate is an Occupational Therapist working in Older Persons Mental Health services in Portsmouth. She has a master’s degree in dementia studies and is particularly interested in supporting people with dementia to do meaningful activities.

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