Caregiving is not easy. It is such a personal, intimate process—doctor’s visits, constant activities together, health concerns, time constraints; everything seems to intertwine into daily life, making two (or more) people in a caregiving situation more intimate than they might otherwise choose to be.
One particular caregiving activity that can seem embarrassing, complicated, and so fraught with emotional obstacles that it seems impossible, is dressing someone who can no longer perform this function alone. This activity can stress even the most professional caregiver or loving family member.
Consent and Comfort
Consent is the most important part of establishing comfort during this activity. Some seniors may want someone of a particular gender to dress them, or they may prefer a professional over a family member or vice versa. If at all possible, honor these requests. In preserving the dignity of seniors as they age, it is more important to respect their giving or withdrawing consent than to perform actions they have not permitted, in spite of your own good intentions in doing so.
Once consent is established, seek out ways to make the senior comfortable. If the person can put on undergarments without help and doesn’t want to be seen completely undressed, do everything you can to set up a safe and private physical space for dressing. Installing railings, having screens on hand, or providing other physical assists can promote both independence and privacy.
For someone who is confused, perhaps consider leaving out two choices for them…
Listen to the person’s desires, as well. Elderly women may not find bras to be very comfortable, and may want less supportive bras (or none at all). If this is how they are comfortable, and it poses no health concerns, this is one way to help seniors keep their dignity in making choices about how they dress. Allow seniors to choose their clothing, if they can; if they prefer t-shirts to dress shirts, for example, for everyday wear, always opt for their preferences. If they prefer the color blue over red, opt for the blue shirt. For someone who is confused, perhaps consider leaving out two choices for them—“this outfit or this outfit today”—instead of simply mandating clothing. This may seem obvious or even “small potatoes” to you as a caregiver. However, seniors who are in need of help dressing are at risk of feeling helpless and depressed, since such a common daily activity suddenly requires help. Giving the senior for whom you care more power whenever possible will empower him or her, and it shows the person that you are concerned for his or her comfort and feelings. You may be surprised at how that will improve your relationship over time, and how much more forthcoming and cooperative the person will be, knowing you can be trusted to respect them in this way.
Give as much independence as possible. Some seniors may be able to dress themselves in certain ways or handle types of clothing, but they may need help with buttons, zippers, or other such small tasks. Give them as much time as they need to be as independently dressed as possible. As stated before, preserving independence means preserving dignity, which leads to less risk for depression and hopelessness.
Take mistakes in stride. Handle situations in which someone forgets a clothing item, or struggles to put it on, with tact and compassion (even with shared laughter!). This can ensure a senior feels less degraded and more cared for during the dressing process. Quietly and positively demonstrating how to put on a garment, for example, or gently reminding the person which garment comes next, will help keep the atmosphere light and happy.
If the senior for whom you care has Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other types of cognitive decline, dressing may be particularly difficult (as opposed to, say, someone who has had a stroke and struggles to use the left side of the body). Physical disabilities may also come into play, and people with cognitive decline may be confused about the time of year, the order of clothing items, or even how to put on clothing items. By laying out clothes in the order they should be put on, checking to make sure certain items are always on (such as socks underneath a pair of sneakers) and securely fastened (like a bra) will help your senior be properly dressed each day. Communicating about this can be complicated, given the confusion related to cognitive decline, but setting up routines and schedules (dressing in a certain way at a certain time of day, for example) will help maintain the person’s dignity.
Especially for those with physical disabilities, consider easy-to-use and comfortable clothing. Velcro straps, elastic waistlines, and simple shirts are much easier for people who have severe arthritis, numbness, or pain to put on, wear, and take off on their own. Making these choices can help the senior for whom you care feel more comfortable every day, and may even make it easier for him or her to dress unaided each day.
Alzheimer’s Society (Great Britain). Dressing. (April 2015). Available at https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=142. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
National Caregiver’s Library. Personal Care: Grooming and Dressing. Available at http://www.caregiverslibrary.org/caregivers-resources/grp-home-care/hsgrp-personal-care-activities/personal-care-grooming-and-dressing-article.aspx. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
National Institutes of Health. Alzheimer’s Caregiving: Bathing, Dressing, Grooming. NIHSeniorHeath.gov. Available at http://nihseniorhealth.gov/alzheimerscare/personalcare/01.html. Retrieved March 26, 2016.