Bathing for Old People or Soaking the Rich at Air Canada or Bath Faults and Ethical Wounds

This essay was written a couple of years ago. Part Humor; part deadly concern. Recently, the Seniors Advocate of BC, Isobel MacKenzie, expressed concern about the frequency of baths available to seniors in care homes. It may be an issue, a dirty little secret, whose time has come. Here is my take:



In late April, on a Wednesday, as is my somewhat mind-numbingly mundane habit, I bought a paper copy of the Globe and Mail. I say mundane to acknowledge that it was purely that repetition of humdrum behaviour, the buying of the Globe most Wednesdays, that provided, for me, a late in life transformational experience.

There were two stories that day that attracted my meandering, somewhat easily divided attention. One, in the business section, a section in which I am rarely comfortable, told the story of AIR Canada CEO, Calin Rovinescu and how the Corporation had enhanced his retirement pay by almost double. It would kick in at age 65 in the amount, with the increase, of $791,300.00. annually.

My first thought was, “what a lucky son of a gun.”

My second thought was a tad less flattering. The article elegantly left no doubt that the greedy buggers at AIR CANADA had breached federal guidelines established a few years earlier to salvage a significantly underfunded Air Canada pension plan.

Hunkered down with corporate greed on my Wednesday plate, I huffed and puffed a little bit and then checked out more of the newspaper.

In moments, my world view crash-landed on the highway of way too much information. This shattering crack-up was instigated by an article by Andre Picard, the Globe and Mail’s Health and Stupidity reporter entitled, WHEN DOES A BATH BECOME A NECESSITY?

I thought the question, when does a bath become a necessity, preposterous. A bath is always necessary. That’s a given. Who would think otherwise?

Certainly not my mother! My father, however, was a little more ambivalent about his daily dunking though I confess I didn’t pay all that much attention to his ablutions timetable.

Of course, having lived a relatively spotless, frequently damp, West Coast lifestyle, I immersed myself in the finer points of the column. Immediately, two factors hit me in the face like a wet dish cloth: A. The question apparently applied only to malodorous nursing home patients and B. The question apparently applied only to pongy elderly nursing home patients in La belle province. OR SO I ASSUMED!

In any case, I hastily fired off a letter to the Globe and Mail lampooning the notion of once a week bathing. I pummelled the Quebec Minister, possibly a once a day bathing-dandy, and most certainly a Physician, a Radiologist, for consigning the elders of Quebec, the ones who built his Province and drove the filthy English out, with a venomous quill of my best porcupine-sharp barbs.

Here is the original letter.

Dear Editor,

As a sixty-eight-year male who has frivolously had a shower pretty much every day of my adult life (and I admit to an occasional unintentional break in this fastidious routine from time to time,) I don’t think I have read a more disheartening column than Andrew Picard’s “When does a bath become a necessity?”.

I say disheartening because, while I confess that I have found aging not to be all that it was cracked up to be, I fully expected to stay clean and perky until the day I left this mortal shower stall.

As an early baby boomer, I have been spoiled. I have fought in no wars; I have had 3 squares a day minimum; I have had sufficient water both to drink and to play in with my assorted rubber ducks.

To discover that, when the day arrives that I am compelled to enter a nursing home, my bathing routine will be, at best, a Saturday night dunking, much like it was in the old and possibly fictional wild west, well, you can appreciate my shock.

I would suggest to Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette, apparently a key defender of “the one-bath-a-week standard,” that he give it a go for a few years.

I suspect that his friends and family will soon suggest he improve his ablutions in much the same way I hope I will be permitted. I would hate to resort to such criminal activities as “black-market baths,” a term new to me and sounding not a little grungy.

I’ll end on a ditty that just came to me.

Aging is such a woe

if you can’t be bathed daily

from your head to your toe.

I was feeling pretty puffy-chested, let me tell you. Quebec! Let them eat a cake of soap once a week. Here, in the squeaky-clean west, l knew beyond any doubt that OUR seniors, OUR vulnerable elders, whether resident in state or private care, would, no matter their financial circumstances, be treated like royalty, or even better than royalty, and would be drenched daily as promoted by thinking people of every century including, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who said, that the pain and the sorrow of life can be alleviated by a good sleep, a daily bath, and a refreshing glass of wine. In which ever order you prefer, though Tom Aquinas didn’t specify as clearly as he might. In any case, for some, myself included, a good sleep is frequently the by-product of both a glass of wine (or three) a day and a daily bath, preferably hot but at least tepid.

Alas, my faith in the politicians and health authorities of BC may have been misplaced. An acquaintance who follows the rituals and regulations of British Columbia Care Homes sets me straight: we, too, are a once-a-week bathing Babylon. I was shattered. I have always been encouraged by my thrifty parents to plan for the future. This sound advice went sideways in my teens and early twenties, no doubt when I encountered the Counter Culture and fell hard. Once those heady times had dissolved, my middle-class values muddled again to the fore, their proper place reclaimed, and I began to plan for aging and other of life’s inevitables. While you can save money for the future; you probably shouldn’t save shower and bath water. Each stand alone.

Bathing is living in the moment. It is a pleasurable moment for many. To gently lower your aching flesh into a pool of warm or hot water, perhaps with bubbles (though I am not drawn to them…as much as I once was…) or to stand under a pulsating stream, a caressing cascade of invigorating, restorative water: Is that not something to die for?

Not just to die for; To live for as well. It is not just the hygienic properties. As Anthony Burgess said, “Bath twice a day to be really clean, once a day to be passably clean, once a week to avoid being a public menace.” The implication is clear. The most minimal standard, the one that will keep you just short of odour terrorism, is the once-a-week cleansing. A very low bar, indeed.

Once I began this bathing odyssey, this trek into the wet nether world, the sprinkling shower of diminishing possibilities that may befall those of us who become infirm and require the intimate intervention of the State, I found myself dwelling on my current condition.

I am not the man I once was. Though not one to make predictions, other than the odd Stanley Cup forecast, and my frequently futile political prognostications, I will venture that I will never be, or see, the man I once was ever again. These days, there is a laundry list of minor complaints, parts failing, organs losing their sparkle, wretched wobbling, baubles of small pleasures floating away with all the errant rubber duckies of my youth.

For a time, I pondered the eternal question: “Am I the only one who is concerned about government bathing policies?”

No, I determined, it is not just an issue that strikes a chord only with me.

A recent report produced by the BC Health Coalition and penned by Marcy Cohen and Joanne Franko identified bathing as one of several significant home care services which have been cut back in recent times by Health Authorities. Whether inadvertent or intentional (and really, it would have to be intentional as the accountants track this sort of thing) it is very provocative. I should observe here that I generally embrace but one conspiracy theory a year, although in my youth, I thought the Warren Commission suspect and, much like over 2/3rds of Americans, I believe that there was a second gunman. There may be other worthy conspiracy theories afoot but in my time, this one and (perhaps) who really killed Marilyn, are the ones I most hold dear.

This has nothing to do with bathing, I grant you, but it does have a lot to do with the way my mind works. This year I have come to believe, and share here for the first time, my belief that there are forces afoot, federal, provincial, municipal, and corporate which are conspiring to prepare us for massive water shortages.

Is it any coincidence that Lyndon Baines Johnson, decades ago, while seeming to champion cleanliness and some of the other holy nesses, Godliness, Eliot Ness, and the like, is reported to have said that “Every man has a right to a Saturday night bath?” The political acumen that this exemplifies, setting a barely tolerable standard that had even then likely outlived its time and yet might be politically necessary as we run short of the life-giving liquid, was prescient.

Another thought rankles as well. LBJ was a tall drink of water. You only have to look at me to see that I am not only tall but weighty. Men of my dimensions simply need more water to keep alive the fallacy that we are clean living and squeakily scrubbed.

Recently, on a Sunday, June 14th, to be exact, with deep thoughts of personal sanitation scooting across my furrowed, relatively scoured brow, I tuned in to Cross Country Checkup.

They were celebrating fifty years of that iconic show. Because that first show examined a quaint new concept just emerging on the federal stage called Medicare, the CBC, and old Rex thought it wise to see what the state of Canadian Health is today…good stuff…but…get this… not a single word about bathing. Oh, the eat your vegetables, exercise until you pass out and the don’t smoke and if you do, you should pay for all your health-related costs folks were prevalent on the call-in lines that day. I, of course, dialled over and over trying to get my powerful point across but I got nowhere beyond an unending busy signal.

It got so frustrating that I took a second shower.


My quest for crystal clear bathing policy continues. Entreaties to politicians, Ministries, Health Authorities, my MLA had produced zilch until days ago when the Ministry of Health sent me a copy of the 2009 invoked BC Residents Bill of Rights. Though it offers a tubful of wonderful rights, it sheds no light on what citizens can expect from state funded bath houses.

Rest assured, I will not relax until I know everything. I will in all likelihood, and assuming the well doesn’t run dry, bathe regularly until I reach that time when I lose my grip…on the soap, slip and crumble in an unhygienic heap in my shower.

And what of AIR Canada CEO, Calin Rovinescu, you ask? Why have I mentioned him at all? I don’t really know. Except perhaps as a device, a juxtaposition. Time permitting, I may have explored what Air Canada expects in the way of bathing for staff and passengers. Presumably they like them all clean. Be assured Mr. Rovinescu, with his almost annual compensation bordering between 5-10,000,000 dollars and his well-deserved, recently inflated $800,000.00 a year pension will never want for a daily bath, unless his own values dictate a less frequent regime.

This will be strictly his choice of course, unlike a percentage of our older citizens, many who will wander, poor, confused and adrift, into the water-restricting, underfunded, under-staffed, over- whelmed, bottom line, long-term care of the State.
Thank you

fields bath


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