Dressing for Dementia

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For people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the private and essential activities of daily living — including bathing, eating, and dressing. Of these, perhaps surprisingly, dressing can be the most difficult. The act is fraught with possible complications that become more difficult as dementia progresses: choosing appropriate clothing in pleasing color combinations; navigating the openings for arms, legs, and head; and remaining clothed in public places.

For some people, especially those who have cultivated an interest in fashion and appearance for much of their lives, how they dress is also an essential part of their personal identities.

And for most, being able to dress and undress without assistance is essential to maintain dignity and independence.

In recognition of these personal predilections, a new industry has sprung up offering “adaptive clothing” designed to meet specific and evolving needs.

Everything’s On the Internet

Buck and Buck, a company with the soothing tagline “We make dressing easier,” has been in the business of selling “special needs” clothing for seniors for 37 years. While it caters to all sorts of needs — from adaptive clothing for individuals with arthritis or braces or urinary bags, its newer “Alzheimer’s Clothing” category is a godsend for those in need.

The advice for those browsing the site is breezy, but informative: “Fewer steps mean the more probability of success in dressing for the person with Alzheimer’s, especially as the disease progresses and more adaptive, special needs clothing becomes necessary. Select colors that coordinate so that the task of matching shirts with pants or blouses with skirts or pants is easy.”

Buck and Buck’s website also separates its clothing for those with memory challenges into three categories.

  • Dresses independently/self dresser: For women, choices include dusters and dresses with the sewn-in appearance of being layered, zippered cardigans, and pull-on slacks and culottes. Men’s fare includes sweat suits, polo shirts that can be easily pulled over the head, and pants with Velcro fly fronts that can be easily maneuvered.
  • Needs help to dress/assisted dressing: For women, there are muumuus with easily accessible sleeves, pull-on pants and tops, robes and gowns. Men can choose from zippered sweatshirts, sweaters, and outdoor wear, as well as warm pajamas and nightshirts.
  • Undresses inappropriately: For women, the offerings are a back-zip jumpsuit. For men, it’s a back-zip sweat suit combo.

The site also includes some gentle instruction related to its category Undresses inappropriately:

“Sometimes the individual with Alzheimer’s will pull at clothing and tug at buttons and zippers for lack of something to do. The zippers, snaps or buttons are there and the idle fingers just have to handle them. This may cause inappropriate undressing to occur which can be embarrassing to family, visitors, and the individual when she or he has a lucid moment.”

Jumpsuits — typically, a one-piece garment for either men or women incorporating both a top and bottom that buttons or zips up — can provide the solution for some, as the openings may not be obvious or easily accessible. Be aware, however, that jumpsuits are notoriously worky when toileting, requiring the wearer to disrobe nearly completely, then redress. So for many people with dementia, jumpsuits may only be an option if there is a caregiver present to help with the process.

A few additional websites that offer selections of adaptive clothing specifically designed to meet the needs of those with dementia and the caregivers who help dress them include:

An Honorable Design Mention

Open Style Lab, a nonprofit organization currently operating in partnership with Parsons School of Design in New York, is dedicated to making style accessible for all people.

In addition to performing research in the field, it holds various events and educational programs to raise awareness and build accessible wearables.

And Open Style Lab’s 10-week research program teams designers, engineers, and occupational therapists to create functional yet stylish clothing solutions for people with dementia and disabilities. For example, a recent creation was “SUITable,” an adaptive sportscoat designed for individuals with limited dexterity featuring thermal comfort, ventilation flaps that can be easily opened and closed, magnetic closures, and hidden pockets.

Happy Hands at Home

A self-proclaimed lover of “sewing, fashion, fabric, and hats,” Chuleenan Svetvilas has also found a way to share that love with her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia about six years ago. When Svetvilas and her two sisters were very young, their mother taught them how to use a sewing machine. “Mom also made all our clothes until we were in junior high and it wasn’t cool any more,” she says.

One of the early signals of dementia was her mother’s difficulty with dressing. Her father, as main caregiver, was at first able to bridge the problem by laying out his wife’s clothes in the order she would put them on: underwear, top, pants. Over time, he needed to assist her during the dressing process, helping with buttons and zippers. At the current stage, he is completely responsible for dressing her, so clothing with elastic waists and no buttons are especially fitting.

In her blog, C Sews, Svetvilas offers a collection of sewing patterns for women that are dementia-friendly, many of which can be instantly downloaded, along with some musings about her mother:

“Now she can no longer sew. She doesn’t have the cognitive ability to remember how to use a sewing machine. I guess things have come full circle and it’s my turn to make her clothes.”

Help for Caregivers, Too

Mindful that dressing another person can also be stressful and frustrating for caregivers, the Alzheimer’s Society offers tips for helping a person with dementia to dress.

Along with suggestions for how to make dressing a positive experience, it details commonsense guidance related to:

  • Giving the person choices
  • Encouraging independence
  • Helping the person stay comfortable
  • Changing clothes regularly
  • Shopping for clothing together, and
  • Accepting unusual clothing choices.

The Alzheimer’s Society also offers a gentle caution that might not be obvious to those without targeted knowledge or experience in caring for a person with dementia: “Remember that the way a person with dementia looks will help them to understand what they are doing. For example, if they are dressed for work, they may think they need to go to work. Similarly, wearing nightwear during the day may make the person think it is time for bed.”

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