Why do people with dementia begin to avoid water, not wanting to shower or even drink the stuff?

Any of the following scenarios could be true. Dementia often causes changes to sensory input and how we see, feel and taste water may not be how they do.

Shower Panic

A stranger is taking off my clothes. I’m cold and naked! There’s a loud sound coming from the wall. The sound is deafening; it echoes on the walls. I’m panicked, but the person holds me tight. There’s stuff coming out of the wall; it hits my skin. It’s hot, the air heavy and hard to breathe. It’s so closed I’m trapped. The person is putting foamy stuff all over my body, touching me! I Stop! Don’t touch me there! There’s a sucking sound from the floor.

Suddenly it’s quiet. I’ve got that stuff from the wall all over me, and I’m cold. The person rubs me with a cloth to get it off.”

During dementia progress, sensory perception can alter, and their experience of a shower can be quite different from ours. One woman said the water felt like needles hitting her skin, and another man felt he was suffocating in the steam while another felt panic, trapped, naked, and claustrophobic.

Being naked, especially if undressed by someone they don’t know or remember, leaves them embarrassed and feeling vulnerable. Afraid of falling, being cold, and not understanding what’s happening is another deterrent to showering.

Showers should be outfitted with shower chairs, non-slip floor covering, and a hose faucet. I used lots of towels per shower. I’d keep a towel on their shoulders and lap even when washing them. With the hose faucet you wash one area at a time removing and replacing the towel; drying same process.

Tub Drowning

There’s a big tank against the wall. She took off my clothes! I feel so embarrassed. She’s trying to lift my legs to get in the tank, but they hurt; I’m afraid of falling. I feel something warm against my feet; they disappear into it. She makes me sit in it! She rubs my skin with something, and the stuff in the tank gets cloudy, and my lower body disappears. Is it eating me!

Now she stands me up, afraid to fall, stand up and the floor looks so far away. My legs hurt, it’s slippery, and I’m so cold.

*Putting the person into a full tub is always a fall risk. If you have no other option outfit it with a transfer chair and hose faucet shower them. I don’t recommend submersion.

An Empty Glass

You need to drink more water Mom.”

“What’s water? I don’t see anything. This glass is empty.”

Try coloring the water with fruit juice. Give smoothies, teas, and other drinks throughout the day. Keep a glass of water next to them at all times. Set an alarm for every hour to remind them to drink frequently. Dehydration is dangerous and a common cause of physical ailments including constipation, obstructed bowel and can cause death.

Ocean, Lakes and River Visits

If the individual doesn’t recognize water anymore a lake or ocean with an expanse of space can cause confusion, (lost in space). Ocean waves can be terrifying and deafening. Large river currents can create visual imbalance and fear of being swept away.

Better to visit smaller bodies of water like ponds or small serene lakes surrounded by trees. Swimming might also cause panic as in the above bathing information. It’s best to try these places but be cautious and prepared in case your loved one panics.

I took a woman with Alzheimer’s to the beach in front of her condo. A place she had always enjoyed for years. She began to scream and run, fell sobbing and unable to find her feet to leave. It was awful for both of us.


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