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Elderly Incontinence: Treatment Options and Caregiver Tips

Written by Michaela Kitchen
 about the author
8 minute readLast updated April 25, 2023
Reviewed by Amanda LundbergAmanda Lundberg is a nurse with over 10 years of experience in clinical settings. She is an expert in family medicine as well as various specialties. Her holistic approach to health focuses on wellness and preventative care. She now writes content for health and wellness brands under her company name, Locksley Content.

For older adults who previously didn’t have trouble making it to the bathroom, experiencing incontinence can leave them feeling embarrassed. Incontinence occurs when there is a problem holding urine or stool. When parents experience these issues, it can prevent them from doing activities they enjoy, like going for walks or gardening, due to fear of an accident. Various lifestyle changes and medical interventions are available to help manage the condition and help your senior loved one regain their independence.

Key Takeaways

  1. There are two main types of incontinence, urinary and bowel. Incontinence can stem from many health conditions and be treated in various ways.
  2. Incontinence issues are common in senior adults. Dealing with these issues can leave adults feeling vulnerable and embarrassed.
  3. Adults can lessen incontinence effects. Those with incontinence may find relief through lifestyle changes or medical intervention.
  4. Adult children can help their parents manage incontinence. Setting up a daily schedule and acting with compassion can help minimize embarrassment.

What is incontinence?

Incontinence happens when muscles in the bladder and bowel do not tense up and relax as they should, causing uncontrolled urination or bowel movements. There are two types of incontinence: urinary incontinence, also known as bladder incontinence, and bowel incontinence, also known as fecal incontinence.[01]
Incontinence can also be acute or chronic. Acute incontinence can last a short period and is usually caused by medications or infections.[02,03] Chronic incontinence can be an ongoing issue and is caused by malfunction of the muscle that makes the bladder contract.[02] A wide range of conditions may cause incontinence.

How common is incontinence for seniors?

As we age, the muscles around the bladder and rectum can deteriorate and bladder elasticity may weaken, making older adults more susceptible to incontinence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51% of seniors of all genders self-reported urinary or bowel leakage. Incontinence is more common in women. In the same study, 55% of women self-reported urinary incontinence.[04]
For women, incontinence can begin during or after pregnancy and after the hormonal changes associated with menopause.[05] But for men, urinary incontinence can indicate an enlarged prostate. Although both women and men can be affected by incontinence, each may have different causes and approaches to treatment and care.

What causes urinary incontinence?

The tightening and relaxing of muscles in and around the urinary system is vital to the system working as it should. When they don’t, urine can leak causing urinary incontinence.[03]
Causes of urinary incontinence include but are not limited to:
  • Urinary tract infections, also known as UTIs
  • Nerve damage in the pelvic or back area
  • Waiting long periods of time to release urine
  • Living with arthritis, making it harder to get to the bathroom
  • Organ prolapse in the pelvis [01,03]

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Types of urinary incontinence

There are several types of urinary incontinence caused by different ailments. Types of urinary incontinence include:
  • Stress incontinence. Most common in middle-aged women, stress incontinence happens when urine leaks due to pressure on the bladder. This can happen during exercise, laughing, sneezing, coughing, or lifting heavy objects.
  • Urge incontinence or overactive bladder. When a sudden urge to urinate happens and reaching the restroom in time is a challenge, urge incontinence or overactive bladder is occurring. Adults living with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or the effects of a stroke often experience this type of incontinence.
  • Overflow incontinence. This type of incontinence occurs when the bladder is consistently full and leaking small amounts. Those with spinal cord injuries or diabetes often experience this type of incontinence. It’s also common in men with enlarged prostates that block the urethra.
  • Functional incontinence. This type of incontinence affects those with normal bladder control who have issues making it to the bathroom in time due to physical ailments like arthritis.
  • Mixed incontinence. As its name suggests, mixed incontinence is when a person experiences a mix of overactive bladder and stress incontinence at the same time.[03,06]

What causes bowel incontinence?

Like urinary incontinence, bowel incontinence is caused when muscles do not function properly. When muscles of the anus and rectum don’t contract and tighten as they should, stool can leak and accidents can happen.[01,07]
Causes of bowel incontinence include:
  • Frequent diarrhea or constipation
  • Damage to muscles in the rectum or anus
  • Nervous system damage
  • Abuse of laxatives
  • Prolapse in the rectum [07]

What is bowel or fecal incontinence?

Bowel or fecal incontinence is defined by a few key symptoms. These situations can feel embarrassing and stressful and may be difficult to discuss with a doctor. However, recognizing when there is an issue can help steer medical treatments in the right direction.
Bowel or fecal incontinence can appear in the form of stool leaking while passing gas or performing physical activities. Bowel incontinence may include noticing stool in undergarments after normal bowel movements. On the more severe end of bowel incontinence, having the need to go and worrying about not being able to make it to a toilet or a complete loss of bowel regulation may also happen.[07]

Incontinence treatment options

There are many ways to manage and treat urinary and bowel incontinence for both men and women. Treatment and management also depend on the severity of symptoms and what will best fit your loved one’s lifestyle. Depending on their situation, a doctor might recommend a combination of treatments.[03]

Urinary incontinence treatment options

Between bladder control training activities and medical treatments, there are many ways to address urinary incontinence that can help men and women.

Bladder control training techniques for urinary incontinence

  • Kegel exercises. These exercises help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder, allowing a person to hold urine longer and avoid future accidents.
  • Urgency suppression. This practice helps control strong urges to urinate to help get to a bathroom quickly. This is done by distracting oneself by taking breaths, holding still, and squeezing the pelvic floor muscles.
  • Timed voiding. This helps control incontinence by going to the restroom on a set schedule so that the bladder does not get too full.[03]

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Medical treatments for urinary incontinence

  • Medication. Doctors may prescribe medicines in pill, liquid, cream, or patch form to treat incontinence problems. Be sure to talk with your loved one’s doctor about any potential side effects.
  • Bulking agents. This is when a thick paste or gel is injected to thicken the area around the urethra. This option may need to be repeated.
  • Medical devices. Catheters drain urine from the bladder, urethral inserts prevent leaks, and vaginal pessaries provide pressure against the urethra to prevent leaks.
  • Biofeedback. These sensors make your loved one aware of signals the body sends and may help them regain muscle control.
  • Electrical nerve stimulation. This treatment sends mild electric currents to nerves around the bladder to help control urination and reflexes.
  • Surgery. If incontinence is caused by a change in the position of the bladder or blockage due to an enlarged prostate, surgery might be recommended. For men, another surgical option includes sling surgery, which involves placing a supportive mesh sling underneath the urethra by making a small incision underneath the scrotum. [03,08]

Bowel incontinence treatment options

Treatment options for bowel incontinence come in many forms. Like urinary incontinence, bowel incontinence can be treated through lifestyle changes or surgery.[07]

Nonsurgical treatment options for bowel incontinence

  • Diet changes. Reducing foods or drinks that can loosen stool, like caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners, and replacing them with foods that can thicken stool, like bananas, apple sauce, and creamy peanut butter, can help manage symptoms.
  • Bowel training. There are two different forms of bowel training. One form is developing a bathroom routine to manage bowel movements better, and the next is learning exercises that strengthen muscles around the anus.
  • Medication. Prescribed medications usually include anti-diarrheal drugs and fiber treatments to firm and decrease stool movement through the intestine.
  • Skin protection. As fecal leakage can cause skin irritation, moisture barrier creams and adult diapers can be used to limit discomfort.

Surgical treatment for bowel incontinence

  • Sphincteroplasty. This procedure stitches damaged anal sphincter muscles back together to secure the muscle on both sides.
  • ACE procedure. This is when a small pathway is created from the lower abdomen to the colon, and through a small tube an enema is administered to allow for a daily flush of the bowels.
  • Artificial bowel sphincter. An artificial device is implanted around the anus to mimic normal anal muscle movement.
  • Sacral nerve stimulation. Stimulation therapy uses a small device implanted under the skin. It sends mild electrical impulses to nerves close to the lower back to influence the bladder, sphincter, and pelvic floor muscles.
  • Colostomy. An operation that implants a special bag to an opening on the abdomen to collect stool. This treatment is only considered when other options have failed.[07]

Tips for caregivers dealing with incontinence

As a child of a loved one dealing with incontinence issues, seeing them embarrassed and not feeling confident can be challenging, but there are ways to help them.
  • Create a bathroom schedule. Helping your parent create and maintain a bathroom schedule can take the stress off of them and minimize the likelihood of accidents.
  • Manage diet. Helping your loved one avoid foods and beverages that make their incontinence worse can help manage their symptoms.
  • Consider the timing of food and drinks. If your parent is primarily having incontinence issues at night, it can help to look at their food and drink intake in the evening. While it is important to stay hydrated, reducing the amount of fluid they consume later in the day may help with overnight issues.
  • Remain patient, kind, and supportive. Although dealing with incontinence can be uncomfortable, be empathic and patient with your loved one as they learn to manage their ailment.
  • Have the right products. Having extra sheets, gloves, wet wipes, and adult diapers on hand can help maintain cleanliness and hygiene.
  • Know when to contact a doctor. When symptoms become unmanageable, reach out to your parent’s doctor to make sure incontinence is not a symptom of a more significant issue.


  1. University of Rochester Medical Center. Bladder and bowel incontinence.

  2. Vogel, S. (2001, October). Urinary incontinence in the elderly. Ochsner Journal.

  3. National Institute on Aging. National Institute of Health. (2022, January 24). Urinary incontinence in older adults.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, June) Prevalence of incontinence among older Americans. Vital and Health Statistics.

  5. John Hopkins Medicine. (2022, November) Urinary incontinence in women.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. (2014, December 28). Types of urinary incontinence.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, November 30). Fecal (bowel) incontinence.

  8. University of Utah Health. Male incontinence.

Meet the Author
Michaela Kitchen

Michaela Kitchen is a copywriter at OurParents. She focuses on senior living trends, resources relevant to the families of seniors, senior lifestyle tips, and health care. Previously, she worked in television and print journalism, social media management, and marketing. She holds a bachelor's degree from Kansas State University in journalism and mass communication.

Edited byKristin Carroll
Reviewed byAmanda Lundberg

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