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Poor Personal Hygiene in the Elderly

Poor Personal Hygiene in the ElderlyPoor personal hygiene is not an age-specific matter. While children may be less likely to practice good personal hygiene without adult supervision, they are gradually instilled with the fundamentals of hygienic practices over time. The bottom line is that it is a personal issue that may be partly determined by socioeconomic and cultural factors as well as upbringing.

Personal hygiene may vary to some extent but as a general rule, it is accepted that bathing daily, a good dental care regimen at least once a day and proper grooming are all parts of good personal hygiene. Sometimes a person’s concept of personal hygiene suddenly changes and this is usually a sign of a psychosocial upset. Less commonly, it may be due to physical debility.

When a sudden or gradual change in personal hygiene is observed in seniors, it warrants further investigation by caregivers, family and friends and even the family doctor. It is one of the first indicators that “all is not well” with an older person yet it is often ignored and chalked up to being an age related issue.

Signs of Poor Personal Hygiene

We all have a concept of what good personal hygiene entails. Therefore poor personal hygiene may be evident by :

  • Foul body odor
  • Greasy and dirty appearance of the skin
  • Unkempt hair on the head and even facial hair
  • Long and dirty fingernails
  • Dirty and ragged clothing

Personal hygiene also extends to one’s habits and living space. Eating without washing one’s hands, not disposing of garbage appropriately, lack of cleanliness when relieving oneself and an untidy and messy home are also signs of poor personal hygiene.

Change in Personal Hygiene in a Senior

There are many reasons why personal hygiene may deteriorate suddenly or gradually over time. In the elderly, it may be due to various mental, psychological and even physical ailments.

  • Depression is more common among the elderly than younger adults and poor personal hygiene may be one of the symptoms. This may be due to grief, loneliness, fear of illness or death and deteriorating health. In these instances a person does not care about hygiene and appearance despite knowing that it should be maintained.
  • Dementia as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or a stroke, which are conditions that are more frequently seen in the elderly. Here a person no longer has a concept of good personal hygiene and socially acceptable standards in appearance and grooming.
  • Physical impairment which limits daily hygiene routines such as bathing may be a consequence of arthritis and other joint diseases, paralysis, nerve and muscle diseases, as well as age-related changes in the muscle strength, joint flexibility and coordination. A person may be unable to perform the tasks that they wish in order to maintain proper personal hygiene.
  • Medication may render a person incapacitated, either physically or mentally. Here a person is still aware about good personal hygiene and may still care about it but is either drowsy, uncoordinated, weak or feeling unwell (malaise) to carry out daily tasks to maintain personal hygiene and appearance.

Consequences of Poor Personal Hygiene

Apart from the social impact of poor personal hygiene and being isolated among friends and families, there is also the medical consequences that need to be taken into consideration. Poor personal hygiene can lead to skin infections with bacteria and fungi and parasitic infestations of the skin and hair. This can be transmitted to others in close contact with the person. The consequences are not isolated to the outside of the body. Unclean hands, utensils and crockery can increase the chances of diseases like gastroenteritis and food poisoning. Sometimes these infections may spread internally thereby affecting various other organs and even progressing to conditions like septicaemia (blood poisoning) in a person with a weakened immune system. In this regard, poor personal hygiene is potentially fatal and needs to be attended to as soon as possible.


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