Minimalist Clothing Lesson Learned: Dressing the Elderly

Very early this morning, Dad called me to ask for help. He had had a bad bout of incontinence and his pajamas and bedding were soiled. This necessitated a change in underwear, pajamas, and bed linens and a quick trip to the laundry room at an ungodly hour. When Dad starts off the day like this, it is a sign that the remainder of the day is likely to be similar.

We are currently changing some of Dad’s medications around to meet the progression of his Parkinson’s disease and the result is more side effects of some drugs and fewer beneficial effects of others. Parkinson’s disease is known as a moving target disease because the patient’s condition is constantly changing. Although the overall progression of the illness is down, patients will experience up days and down days for reasons currently unknown. Physicians respond to the situation by trying to find a happy medium that will mitigate the effects of the down days without dampening the up days too much.

Being the caregiver of a Parkinson’s patient, or any elderly person for that matter, requires a great deal of flexibility and spontaneous problem solving. One chore that is a frequent problem for caregivers to tackle is incontinence, which can occur anytime, anywhere with varying severity. On a bad day, a caregiver may help change their parent’s underwear 5 or more times, making removing and putting clothing back on complicated and time-consuming. Clothing may also become soiled, requiring quick changes.

Despite these challenges, there are some things that caregivers can do to make dressing easier on themselves and their parents. Here are some things I have learned:

  • Prevent incontinence in the first place by having parents visit the toilet at regular intervals and before outings with family. Due to memory loss and dementia, the elderly may not logically connect feeling “the urge” with needing to make a trip to the bathroom. Or they may not think to visit the bathroom until it is too late to prevent incontinence. The elderly move slowly and will also need more time to get to the bathroom.

  • Dress your parent in clothing with a minimum of fasteners. The more buttons, laces, and zippers on clothing, the more time it will take to dress and undress your parent.
  • For relaxing at home, encourage men to wear t-shirts and sweat pants. For ladies, look for nice lounge wear. These can double as pajamas and exercise wear.
  • For street clothes, look for mock turtlenecks or polo shirts, and elastic-waist chinos for men. For ladies, try elastic waist slacks or skirts, and blouses that pull on over the head.
  • Dress your parent in separates. Avoid one-piece clothing like jumpsuits, and dresses since these will complicate clothing changes and create more soiled laundry. The one exception to this is a bathrobe since it ties and easily comes off.
  • Look for warm socks with rubber tread on the bottom that can function both as socks and slippers at home. The socks provided in hospitals to patients are great because they prevent falls due to slipping.
  • Use suspenders for men’s pants instead of belts because the pants will be easier to remove when changing.
  • Look for shoes that slip on or fasten easily with Velcro. Avoid shoes with laces unless a physician directs the parent to wear lace shoes for proper foot care.
  • Try slippers with a rubber non-skid sole that are appropriate for both indoor and outdoor use.
  • Look for shoes that can be washed easily in a washing machine. Based on personal experience, I do not recommend leather shoes, unless they are washable leather, because thoroughly cleaning soiled leather shoes is terribly difficult.
  • Look for multi-functional clothing. Don’t worry about changing outfits frequently for fashion reasons as soiled clothes will need to be changed regularly anyway. Any time caregivers can cut down on clothing changes it will be easier for both the caregiver and parent.
  • Choose fabrics that wash easily in a washing machine and do not require ironing or dry cleaning.
  • Carry a “man bag” or “lady’s bag” on outings that contain several pairs of Depends, baby wipes, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, apron for the caregiver, a plastic bag for soiled garments, and a change of clothing. Include a clean pair of socks and shoes with the change of clothing.