Caring for a Loved One with Fecal Incontinence

If your loved one struggles with fecal incontinence, it can be challenging to know how to approach the issue. Here is a caregiver guide to fecal incontinence that covers much of what you need to know about this condition.

Fecal incontinence (FI) can be very frustrating and embarrassing for those who experience it. For caregivers, it can be difficult to know how to handle the symptoms.

What Is Fecal Incontinence?

Fecal incontinence is an inability to control bowel movements, which may result in leaking. This may range from passing some stool when attempting to pass gas to experiencing a complete lack of control. Loss of control can happen because of temporary illnesses, such as gastroenteritis, or because of chronic conditions. The natural process of aging in general can weaken the muscles and nerves involved with controlling the bowel, leading to FI.

How Is Fecal Incontinence Diagnosed?

If your loved one is experiencing recurring accidents, it is important to understand the nature of them as fully as possible. For example, some seniors experience urge incontinence, which occurs when they cannot make it to the bathroom in time, while others experience passive incontinence, which happens when they are unaware that they need to go. A physician will ask questions about your loved one's symptoms, about how long they have been occurring, and about what sort of events trigger them. It can feel awkward to ask your loved one for these details, but it will help any doctors understand the situation and select a proper treatment.

Treatment Options

The treatment selected for these issues is dependent on the cause. Treatment may include dietary changes, as increasing fluid intake and eating more fiber can help alleviate symptoms. Exercise may also be recommended, especially activities that are targeted at improving anal sphincter function and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles (a trained therapist can provide instructions for these exercises). A third aspect of treatment might be bowel training, which is when one schedules and adheres to a pattern of having bowel movements at specific times throughout the day. This allows the body to get used to going at those set times, which decreases the chances of incontinence. Consult a physician to see what sort of treatment is best for your loved one.

Living with Limited Bowel Control

For caregivers, planning ahead can help decrease the likelihood of accidents and ensure you are prepared in case one does occur. Here are a few tips:

  • Take a bag that contains extra clothing, wipes, disposable underwear or pads, and a bag for soiled items when you go out with your loved one.

  • Keep an eye out for public restrooms and be diligent about using them as they are available.

  • Try to avoid any known triggers (eating tends to be a natural trigger for most people) and try to organize outings around meals.

Maintaining Skin Integrity and Comfort

In addition to the psychological distress commonly caused by incontinence, bowel control problems can result in physical issues like sores and infections. It is important to focus on preventing these issues by taking good care of the surrounding skin. To do so, try to ensure that your loved one's perineal area is always clean, dry and conditioned and make an effort to change damp or soiled garments immediately, then cleanse the area thoroughly and allow it to air dry as often as possible. These steps will help reduce odor, maintain healthy skin, and keep your loved one comfortable. When using cloths or lotions, gently pat the skin to dry or apply creams instead of wiping or rubbing, as these movements can cause irritation. If your loved one uses disposable products, such as briefs or bed pads, be sure to choose those that have a soft outer layer that wicks moisture away from the skin and into an absorbent core.

Source: English, Kim. “Caring for a Loved One with Fecal Incontinence.” Managing Symptoms of Limited Bowel Control -, 13 Aug. 2018,