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Beyond the taboo – incontinence management for all ages

What’s the last taboo? In the last couple of years there have been headlines suggesting that period poverty, the menopause and leaky bladders all fit the phrase. They’re topics that we haven’t been supposed to talk about, because they’re too personal – and frankly rather messy.

It’s wonderful to see that attitude changing. The media and advertisers have taken a deep breath and started talking about the physical, emotional and mental fallout of these natural processes. They’re even prepared to run ads on prime time television – mostly showing fit women living their best lives despite their bodily functions.

There are still battles to be fought though. We need to break down the social stigma surround the issue of incontinence, for the sake of the health of people of all ages. And we need to take a look at the cost of incontinence in a cost-of-living crisis.

What’s the problem?

Society tends to think of incontinence as the result of inevitable ageing, or possibly unexpected health issues. But actually it’s not something that suddenly happens when you reach a certain age.

Incontinence is very common. In fact, around 1 in 10 adults in the UK are affected by bowel incontinence and more than 3 in every 10 women live with bladder incontinence.

So what are the different types of incontinence? Can we do anything to prevent them? And how to do we manage it for ourselves and our older family members?

Bladder troubles

Bladder incontinence affects millions of people of all ages, but it is more common in women and older adults.

It can sneak up on us gradually. Perhaps taking robust exercise, coughing, or even coming into a warm home from the cold, can cause an involuntary leak.

There are many different causes of bladder incontinence, including an overactive bladder, some medications, irritants such as alcohol and caffeine, and obesity. Pelvic muscles, which control the bladder, can also become weak through pregnancy and childbirth, or simply ageing.

Bowel troubles

Bowel incontinence is the topic we don’t really talk about. In many ways this is hardly surprising. We still have a great deal of social stigma surrounding bowel incontinence.

Causes of bowel incontinence can be short or long term. Constipation, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea can all lead to problems with bowel movements but can fairly easily be addressed. Longer term issues can include weak pelvic floor muscles, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and nerve damage from surgery, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

It’s hard for individuals and their families to think and talk about bowel management without awkwardness. Dealing with the effects of incontinence is a deeply personal and, for most of those concerned, embarrassing activity. And that can have an effect on how well people are able to manage their incontinence.

Why is incontinence a social problem?

Age UK argues that incontinence is the taboo that is hurting the dignity and health of millions.

Incontinence can leave people feeling ashamed of their bodies. To avoid difficult situations some individuals withdraw from social activities, and that can lead to isolation and loneliness – which can in itself lead to anxiety and depression.

Sufferers can also experience low self-esteem as a result of not being able to control their own functions.

It can put a strain on relationships too. Even if partners and children for example are providing a caregiving role, having to address the practical requirements of incontinence changes the nature of the relationship.

The cost of managing incontinence

Today we have yet another issue to address.

Not only is incontinence a difficult subject to talk about, but managing it is another probably unexpected cost in an increasingly expensive world. While some conditions qualify for free products through the NHS, others don’t. And the products available on prescription can be unwieldy and awkward to use. To receive products on the NHS, you may be required to go through an assessment process.

There are plenty of products available in the private marketplace. Yet the cost adds up, and for those on limited budgets it’s tempting to cut costs by using inappropriate products – sanitary pads and nappies for example.

Yet using the wrong products could lead to even more problems, such as skin irritation and infection, which could themselves become serious if left untreated.

The cost of living crisis has helped to create a challenge of ‘incontinence poverty’, in which people on lower incomes simply cannot afford products to manage their needs. With incontinence products costing individuals an average of £1800 per year, help is needed.

One of the organisations that has recognised this growing problem in UK society and wants to help ease life for sufferers is the Complete Care Shop, an established supplier of incontinence aids. CCS has teamed up with the charity Bladder and Bowel UK and secured £150k worth of incontinence products to help anyone who is living with, or caring for someone with incontinence and are struggling to pay for products. 

Those who need some incontinence products (free of charge and limited to two items per household) can call the CCS customer care team on 01772 675 048 or fill in the online form.

Lifestyle advice

If you want to prevent or address bladder incontinence, there are various approaches you can try at home, although if you are at all worried you should contact your GP for advice.

Suggestions often given include:

  • Practising pelvic (Kegel) floor exercises to strengthen the muscles controlling the bladder
  • Losing weight
  • Avoiding the irritants of caffeine and alcohol
  • Limiting fluids in the hours leading up to bedtime for a less broken night’s sleep
  • Trying bladder training exercises

If you’re concerned about experiencing bowel incontinence, do consult your medical practioner.

General lifestyle advice includes:

  • Increasing fibre intake
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Getting regular exercise to strengthen muscles
  • Losing weight to avoid excess pressure on the bowel
  • Avoiding straining

Find out more

The NHS provides more information about urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence. AgeUK also offers a useful guide on bladder and bowel problems.


This post is in conjunction with Complete Care Shop, but all thoughts and opinions are those of When They Get Older.

Image by wirestock on Freepik

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