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Bathing For Older People With Disabilities

Abir Mullick

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access, School of Architecture and Planning - University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY. Source: Bathing for Older People with Disabilities; Mullick, A. (1993, Fall). Technology and Disability; 2, (4): 19-29.

The fundamental purpose of bathing is to maintain health and physical well being of the body. While most young, able-bodied people do not think twice about taking bath, bathing is more difficult, more time consuming, and more hazardous for older people with disabilities. The Gallup organization in 1983 surveyed 1,500 non-institutionalized people over the age of 55. "Using shower or tub" was one of the sixteen problem areas identified for maintaining activities of daily living. The National Center for Health Statistics in 1987 reported that about 10 percent of all people over the age of 65 have difficulty bathing, and about 6 percent receive help (Lawton, 1990). The magnitude of problems older people experience while bathing and the seriousness of the situation raises many important questions. Why do they continue to bathe? How difficult is it for older people to bathe? How safe is bathing for older persons with disabilities? Why do older people bathe in unsafe conditions?

Physiologically, bathing allows cleansing of the skin and removal of accumulated foreign matter. Bathing displaces dead skin, prevents irritations and rashes that would otherwise transform into infections, and washes away waste materials that can interfere with the normal functioning of the skin. Bathing allows people to: 1) maintain acceptable social standards of cleanliness, both appearance and olfactory, and 2) refresh, revive, and relax through the washing process.

Bathing, like all forms of body cleansing activities, is habitual and ritualistic. It is laden with social, psychological and philosophical overtones. Philosophically, bathing is equated with cleanliness of body and purity of soul, and it reflects aptly in the popular phrase, "Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness." People's obsession to maintain a clean body is well known. Americans take at least seven baths a week. The rising sale of deodorants, anti-perspirants, and mouth washes supports the social emphasis for maintaining a clean body, and it reflects the cultural and aesthetic spirit of the society (Kira, 1966).

This paper will first examine the safety aspects of bathing. It will then present results of a study that investigated the safety and accessibility needs related to bathing among older persons and their care-providers. Finally, the conclusion will offer design directives to assist in design of a safe and accessible bathing equipment.

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