One of the most intimate parts of my care is being washed by another person. Once my hand splints come off, I struggle to use my hands and can’t open bottles or hold a sponge without causing further hand pain. It is because of this that my carers wash me, my entire body, yes, even there. My entire body.
What does this mean for a 32 year old? Well, today it’s normal. I started having carers wash me when I was 28 and the flat I lived in wasn’t accessible. We were having to sponge wash me at the sink. I would sit in my dressing gown and we’d slowly work through my body. It was cold and tiring and that was my overwhelming feelings about the matter. They over-rode any concerns about privacy and dignity and nakedness.
But, it was important to me that it wasn’t just anyone who was washing me. I insisted on regular carers than I could build a relationship with and there were particular carers who I chose to wash me because we had a better rapport. One of my carers was very nervy and anxious and the idea of having her wash me wasn’t one I was ok with. Another was incompetent and whilst that’s not great when she’s brushing my hair, it’s something else when she’s taking a sponge to my boobs…
Later I would move into a flat with a shower and whilst it was much better than sponge washes, it did change things slightly. I was sitting in front of a fully dressed carer whilst I was completely and utterly naked. And yet, I was ok with this, so long as I could chose the carer. We got into routines and it was a bit like a strange dance; I start by offering my arm out to be washed, then I turn and my other arm gets washed. Then my legs, then my back, then my tummy and so on.
Today, having carers shower me is run of the mill, it’s what we do, it’s how I get clean. Still though, the quality of the shower is down to how good my relationship with my carer is. I had a carer last year who I didn’t get on with, who didn’t listen and who didn’t treat me with the respect she should have. I didn’t like having a shower with her. She got shampoo and shower gel in places that didn’t need it – eyes, ears etc. She didn’t like to talk whilst showering me. She stood as far away from me as she could whilst also doing the job. She tried to do things her own way which means the strange shower dance I have spent years perfecting didn’t work. It was awkward and clumsy and disconnected and I felt like an object.
Similarly, carers who are prudish or standoffish make for an awkward atmosphere. They see you naked and whilst I don’t expect to see my carers naked, I do expect to feel like I know something of the carer, outside their job. That they have a couple of kids or a dog is enough. That acknowledgement that we are both people.
I am lucky and I am now with a great care agency who focus on compatibility which in turn means showers are easier. But the idea of being with an agency that sends out different people every day horrifies me. To be showered by someone who has just met you, who doesn’t know you as a person, who doesn’t know what you can and can’t do and what might be risky or not. It doesn’t happen in any other relationship. The very least I would expect is to have met the person who is seeing me naked, in a physically vulnerable situation. To have a care manager who acknowledges that I am a person with preferences and not an object. It is not like taking a car to a car wash. There needs to be dignity and rapport, understanding and empathy.
The vulnerability inherent in being showered by a carer must also be acknowledged:
“One person, strong and able, stands above and over another who is frail and physically vulnerable, forced to rely on their strength and goodwill… Being naked in the face of someone who is not, contains a powerful dynamic of domination and vulnerability, and it is often used in situations of interrogation and torture as a means of subjugating the individual.”
– Julia Twigg
If you are washing, or being washed, by another person:
- make sure the room is warm enough – being showered by another person is a lot colder than showering yourself
- check the temperature of the water and make sure to either keep checking it or that the person being washed feels comfortable enough to speak up
- non slip mats for safety
- a shower seat can make things easier and safer
- if the person being washed can do bits of it, let them; if they can do lots of it, they may want you to wait outside within shouting distance
- if you’re being washed, having nice products can make it feel a little nicer
- showering can be a good time to check for sores and rashes and bruises and such things
- check what side of the sponge the person wants using – I want rough side for legs and soft side for top half of my body
- having a shower routine can make things easier, less tiring and quicker
- once showered, my carers wrap my towelling dressing gown around me and I dry that way
- but most importantly of all, communicate, and remember that you’re helping a person, you aren’t washing a car.