How to care for an ageing family member who suffers from incontinence

Our team at HARTMANN Direct are aware of the difficulties of dealing with an ageing family member who suffers from incontinence. There are apparent practical implications when ensuring the comfort of your loved ones. However, maybe more difficult are the emotional consequences for you and for your family member. We cannot underestimate the importance of dignity and respect when dealing with people who are ageing; we cannot just assume that they expect this.

We hope to guide you through possible strategies for coping with all the consequences of incontinence in an ageing family member.

Let's deal with the most significant problem first. Of course, this isn't the mess or the smell that is caused. The most significant barrier we face is our own and our family members embarrassment. You are likely caring for a parent, and the roles have now reversed. They used to clean your bottom, and now you are cleaning theirs. This is poignant and scary on one level. However, if the person is of the opposite gender, then the problems are increased by the humiliation of being exposed in this way. Your family member is likely to feel awkward at being seen and touched – and potentially having to disclose health problems like sores and itching. And you are going feel embarrassed too.

One of the better ways to cope with this is to bring the elephant out into the room. Don't just battle on in silence trying to avoid eye contact. You need to talk about it openly. If you can speak, then it is possible that the family member can speak up about needing the toilet before an incontinence episode occurs. This allows them some dignity and some control. However, it is likely that you will need to initiate the conversation.

There may be a reluctance to admit to you that there is a problem. This is fuelled of the embarrassment spoken of but could lead to more problems, as the family member refuses to accept the need for help. They may be angry that their life has come to this and this may result in them hitting out and being disdainful of intervention.

It is important to deal with this by talking – gently but honestly – with the family member. You could begin the conversation by offering them products they could wear for themselves. Be tactful in the way you approach the subject, realising that underlying human dignity is at stake here.

Your anger
As we feel frustration when a baby soils its nappy at precisely the wrong time, we can also express emotions when caring for a relative who has an incontinence episode. There may be a natural leaning to anger, which in turn can cause shame in those being cared for. Managing this is difficult, and a lot of negative emotion will arise in you because you are tired and emotionally stretched by the situation. Therefore, a better way to cope is to seek help and support. You can turn to other family members, asking them to take some of the load, or you can seek the advice of professional organisations. Feeling alone is a sure way of reducing your emotional resilience.

Practical Considerations
We have necessarily spent much of this article focused on emotions. This is because most of us have a degree of common sense and can puzzle out practical considerations. We provide some tips that might avoid stressful situations.

First, plan before leaving the house. You should pack a shoulder bag with everything you would need if there were an incident. This includes gloves, wipes, pads, underwear, and more. Remember to take a plastic bag to contain any clothing that has been soiled.

Second, giving as much control to the ageing family member is essential. Therefore, your role may be mostly purchasing incontinence products that the family member can change and deal with themselves. This will also help them maintain as much dignity for as long as possible.

Third, consider hiring in help. There is only so much time available when you can be with your relative. No matter how much you feel it is your responsibility, you cannot give out of an empty cup. Therefore, you are wise to seek support from professional carers who can come in and maybe do some of the more intimate work, like applying creams. It is crucial, if you choose this that you discuss it with the relative and you then proceed without grief or guilt.


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