Getting dressed is a very personal and private activity. When people start to have difficulty with it, they often feel frustrated and embarrassed and are reluctant to accept help. Who wants to get dressed in front of someone else, or be dressed by another person? Struggles with caregivers like you can be common.
And dressing is a surprisingly complex task! Many steps and decisions are involved: deciding what to wear, selecting specific pieces of clothing, remembering the order of getting dressed—what to put on first, second, etc.—and coordinating the movements of our limbs with the clothing. And we have to be able to focus long enough to accomplish all these steps.
These are skills that dementia can diminish or take away altogether. As dementia progresses, a person may not be able to:
- remember the last time she changed her clothes
- identify items of clothing, confusing a jacket for a sweater
- recognize or coordinate parts of the body
- sequence the steps of getting dressed in the right order
- know what is appropriate for weather conditions or social events
- manage buttons and zippers
- have the energy to get dressed or undressed
How can you help make getting dressed easier? Here are six strategies that we have seen work for families struggling with dressing challenges.
- Choose clothing that fits comfortably and is easy to take on and off. Look for:
- garments with front closures. They are easier to reach and let your relative stay involved in getting dressed.
- blouses and shirts with back closures for people in wheelchairs
- sweat pants and other active wear that are easy to get on and off, warm, and easy to wash
- skirts and pants with elastic waistbands
- items with Velcro™ closures rather than buttons, snaps, zippers and belt buckles
- “adaptive clothing” that looks normal but has been adapted for easier dressing – like shirts with hidden Velcro closures or pants with zippers down the legs.
- Organize closets and drawers. Take some time to:
- label dresser drawers so your relative can find what he or she is looking for
- limit the number of clothing items in drawers and closets to simplify the decision
- remove rarely worn clothes and out of season clothes
- assemble all articles of clothing and accessories that are to be worn together. Hang pants or skirt with matching shirt, sweater, underwear and any other accessories on one hanger.
- buy several versions of your relative’s favorite item of clothing. Your relative can wear the same black pants and sweater every day—but you can wash them.
- Make sure the area where your relative gets dressed has adequate lighting, is clutter-free, and most of all, is warm! Older adults, especially those with dementia, may need a warmer room to feel comfortable.
When it’s time to help her get dressed, let her do all she can by herself. Being able to dress oneself, even partially, gives a person a sense of control, accomplishment and independence. These approaches will help:
- Follow your relative’s dressing routine as much as possible. How did she start her day in the past? Did she have breakfast before or after getting dressed?
- If your relative is able to choose what to wear, give her two choices. If she is not able to make a choice, have garments ready and within reach.
- Layer clothes on a bed in the order in which they will be put on. Put undergarments at the top of the pile, the second article (blouse, shirt, pants etc.) next, etc. Make sure all articles of clothing are right side out. Arranging clothes on a bedspread or blanket of a contrasting color may help a person see the articles of clothing better.
If you encounter problems, try using our Behavior Detective approach to get to the root of the situation. Keep a diary or log in order to pinpoint whether there are particular times of the day when your relative may be more interested and involved in getting dressed or undressed. Your relative may be more able and willing to change clothes when she is rested, or when she is following a long-held routine.
We hope these strategies can help you take the stress out of dressing. Even more suggestions can be found in our book, Coping with Behavior Change in Dementia: A Family Caregiver’s Guide. We also share strategies several times a week on our Facebook page. Maybe we’ll see you there!