The Not-So-Sweet Smell of Caregiving


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The Not-So-Sweet Smell of Caregiving ​By Elizabeth Shean

It’s late on a Tuesday morning. Mom’s CAREGiverSM, Jessa, has finished giving Mom and shower and now has moved on to a few light housekeeping duties. One of these is running a mop over the tile floors of our little casa.

In my home office at the other end of the house, the bracing scent of pine-tinged ammonia reaches my nostrils. I inhale deeply. I love the smell of most cleaning products, and even more so now that Mom and I cohabitate in close quarters. This is the one day a week that my house smells fresh instead of smelling like...well.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m going to talk today about a somewhat taboo subject: bathroom odors.

Why talk about something so delicate? A couple of reasons. First, I think it’s important for caregivers to shine a light on the tough topics. It brings relief to be able to say, “Yes! I feel that way, too, but I hesitated to say anything.”

Second, I want to point out that some of the most stressful issues surrounding caregiving aren’t the big ones. Sometimes the small things bring large consequences.

When I took care of my dad during the final seven months of his life, I became aware of how difficult it was to keep my house from smelling like a medical facility. As Dad’s dementia got worse, he became incontinent. And no matter how diligently I tried to clean up after him, once even a small amount of urine soaks into a piece of upholstered furniture or a mattress, it’s nearly impossible to remove it. By the end of Dad’s life, my house retained an unpleasant, acrid odor that took months to go away.

And so, when Mom and I downsized I was vigilant about fighting this particular battle. Mom’s bathroom directly adjoins the main living area, and while she is not incontinent, her bathroom doesn’t offer great ventilation. Nor is she used to spraying air freshener after using the facilities. It’s not something she has ever done, and she frequently forgets to spritz. So, despite my best efforts, there’s already a certain dusky odor that hangs in the air of my house at all times. I’ll be honest: It’s embarrassing.

In fact, it’s so embarrassing that I’ve yet to entertain friends in my new place. I’m worried about how I would cope if, in the midst of my dinner party, Mom needed to spend time in the bathroom. The ensuing odor definitely could put a damper on anyone’s appetite.

I’ve read about caregiver isolation in the past, but I always thought about it in abstract terms. I envisioned isolation resulting from the sheer time investment caregiving requires. I never thought about bathroom odor as a cause for isolation. And yet I’m living that very scenario.

When I moved into my new house, I pictured myself hosting cocktail parties and informal get-togethers. I saw Mom mingling with the crowd initially and then retiring to her bedroom to close the door and watch TV. It sounded idyllic.

Now I realize none of that is going to happen. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be comfortable inviting friends over when there’s the constant possibility of bathroom odors infiltrating the living areas. It’s disappointing, but I imagine I’ll live through it.

I’ve tried using different types of air fresheners, but Mom says they make her sneeze. At the moment, the main respite we get from the resident smell of bodily odors is when Jessa mops the floors every week. Who would have thought such a simple act could improve our quality of life so much? One more reason to be grateful to have a professional caregiver.

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