Many people with dementia experience loss of bladder or bowel control (incontinence). Causes include inability to recognize natural urges, forgetting where the bathroom is, or side effects from medicine.

Causes of incontinence

If a person with Alzheimer’s has recently started to lose control of his or her bladder and bowels, the first and most important step is to determine the possible causes. A doctor should rule out medical problems.

Medical conditions

  • Urinary tract infection, constipation or a prostate problem.
  • Diabetes, stroke, or a muscular disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.
  • Physical disabilities that prevent the person from reaching the bathroom in time.

Medications and diuretics

  • Sleeping pills and anxiety-reducing drugs may relax the bladder muscles.
  • Drinks such as cola, coffee, and tea can act as diuretics; a diuretic increases urination.

Environment and clothing obstacles

  • Make sure the person can find the bathroom.
  • Clear the path to the bathroom by removing furniture or clutter; make sure the path is well-lit.
  • Provide clothes that are easy to remove.
  • When away from home, be sure to take an extra set of clothes in case of an accident.

Provide reminders

  • Encourage the person to go regularly, and to tell you when he or she needs to use the toilet.
  • Watch for nonverbal cues such as tugging on clothing, restlessness, facial expressions, pacing, sudden silence, or hiding in corners or behind furniture. These cues indicate the need to use the toilet.
  • Use adult words, not baby talk, to refer to using the toilet.
  • Learn the person’s “trigger” words or phrases for needing to use the toilet. The person may use words that have nothing to do with the bathroom (e.g., “I cannot find the light”), but to that person, it means going to the bathroom.

Make it easy for the person to find and use the toilet

  • Clear the path to the bathroom by moving furniture.
  • Keep the bathroom door open so the toilet is visible.
  • Post a sign of a toilet on the bathroom door.
  • Paint the bathroom door with a color in contrast to the wall.
  • Make the toilet safe and easy to use. For example, raise the toilet seat, install grab bars on both sides of the toilet, and use nightlights to illuminate the bedroom and bath.
  • Consider using colored rugs on the bathroom floor and colored toilet lids to help the toilet stand out.
  • Consider a portable commode or urinal for the bedroom in case of nighttime accidents.
  • Remove plants, wastebaskets and other objects that could be mistaken for a toilet.
  • Remove throw rugs that may cause a person to trip and fall.

Plan ahead

  • Identify when accidents occur, then plan for them. If they happen every two hours, get the person to the bathroom before that time.
  • Remind the person to use the bathroom just before his or her usual time.
  • Try setting a regular schedule for toilet use. For example, help the person to the bathroom first thing in the morning, every two hours during the day, immediately after meals and just before bedtime.
  • Limit the person’s intake of liquids before bedtime.

Tips for toileting

  • Choose clothing that is easy to remove and to clean.
  • Consider using incontinence products, such as rubber sheets, incontinence pads on the person’s bed, padded undergarments, or adult briefs.
  • Give the person plenty of time in the bathroom to empty his or her bladder and bowels.
  • Run water in the sink or give the person a drink to stimulate urination.
  • Check the toilet to see if the person has urinated and/or moved his or her bowels.
  • Help the person wipe and flush the toilet.
  • Regularly wash sensitive skin areas and apply powder or ointment.

More information:

National Association for Continence

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