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OBJECTIVES: To quantify the burden of bathing disability over time; to determine whether the burden of bathing disability differs according to age, sex, and physical frailty; and to evaluate the relationship between disability in bathing and disability in other essential activities of daily living (ADLs).

DESIGN: Prospective cohort study.

SETTING: General community in greater New Haven, Connecticut.

PARTICIPANTS: Seven hundred fifty-four community-living older persons aged 70 and older who were nondisabled (required no personal assistance) in four essential ADLs: bathing, dressing, transferring from a chair, and walking inside the house.

MEASUREMENTS: Bathing disability, defined as the inability to wash and dry one's whole body without personal assistance, was assessed every month for up to 6 years, along with disability in dressing, transferring, and walking.

RESULTS: Over the course of 6 years, 440 participants (58.4%) had at least one episode of bathing disability, and 266 (34.0%) had multiple episodes, with the duration of each episode averaging about 6 months. Whether assessed as number of episodes, duration of episodes, incidence rates, or number of months per 100 months, the burden of bathing disability was greatest in participants who were physically frail and was consistently higher in women than men and in participants who were aged 80 and older than those who were aged 70 to 79. Most episodes of bathing disability (86.1%) were not preceded in the prior month by disability in dressing, transferring, or walking, and nearly half (48.3%) were not accompanied at onset by disability in one or more of these other ADLs. In a multivariable model that included age, sex, and physical frailty, the onset of bathing disability increased the likelihood of developing disability in the other essential ADLs the following month fivefold (hazard ratio=5.1, 95% confidence interval=4.1-6.4).

CONCLUSION: Disability in bathing may serve as a sentinel event in the disabling process. Given the recurrent nature of bathing disability, programs designed to enhance independent bathing will need to focus not only on the prevention of bathing disability, but also on the restoration and maintenance of independent bathing in older persons who become disabled.

(C) 2006 by the American Geriatrics Society