Dementia and Dressing

The way we dress says a lot about who we are. For most of us, dressing is a very personal and private activity − and one in which we are used to making our own decisions. As dementia progresses people increasingly need more help with dressing. It is important to enable people with dementia to make their own choices for as long as they can and, if they do need assistance, to offer it tactfully and sensitively.

Tips for Helping a Person with Dementia Dress

If you are involved in helping someone with dementia choose what to wear, there is plenty you can do to help them retain some choice and to express their own identity and personal style, while making sure that they are clean, warm and comfortable. Here are some tips:

Encourage independence

  • Lay out clothes in the order the person will put them on. Remind them sensitively which garment comes next, or hand them the next item that they need.
  • If the person is confused, give instructions in very short steps, such as, ‘Now put your arm through the sleeve.’
  • If mistakes are made − for example, by putting something on the wrong way round − be tactful, or find a way for you both to laugh about it.
  • Label drawers where particular items of clothing are kept, or store whole outfits together.

Help the person stay comfortable

  • Make sure the room is warm enough to get dressed in.
  • Ask if the person would like to go to the toilet before getting dressed.
  • Try to keep to the person’s preferred routine − for example, they may like to put on all their underwear before putting on anything else.
  • It can be useful if the person wears several layers of thin clothing rather than one thick layer, as they can then simply remove a layer if it gets too warm.
  • Remember that the person may no longer be able to tell you if they are too hot or cold, so keep an eye out for signs of discomfort.

Give the person choice

  • Wherever possible, ask the person what they would like to put on. Someone with dementia needs the dignity of having choice in what they wear, but too many options can be confusing, so it may be best to make suggestions one at a time.
  • If the person has lots of clothes, put the things they wear most frequently somewhere accessible. This will make it easier for the person to choose.

Go clothes shopping together

  • If you’re buying clothes for the person with dementia, try to take them with you, so that they can choose the style and the colours they prefer.
  • Check the person’s size before buying. They may have lost or gained weight without you realising.
  • Look for clothes that are machine washable and need little ironing, as this will save time.
  • Remember that the person with dementia may not recognise new clothes as belonging to them if they have no memory of having bought them, and may not want to wear them.

Change clothes regularly

Sometimes people with dementia are reluctant to undress even when they go to bed, or will refuse to change their clothes. It’s important to make sure the person changes their clothes frequently, and to find ways to do this without upsetting them. Here are a few strategies you could use to persuade them:

  • Remove the dirty clothing and put clean clothing in its place when the person is in the bath or shower.
  • Persuade them to change because someone is visiting.
  • Say how much you’d love to see them wearing something new.

Accept any unusual clothing choices

It is important to respect the person’s choice of what to wear. As long as it does no harm, it’s probably better to accept the person dressing in an unusual way, or wearing clothing that is out of place, than to have a confrontation. If the person is determined to wear a hat in bed, for example, or a heavy coat in summer, try to respect their choice. See Factsheet 525, Unusual behaviour.

Making Dressing a Positive Experience

Helping a person to look the way they want to look is an important way of maintaining their confidence. Regularly compliment the person on the way they look, and encourage them to take pride in their appearance.

Allow enough time

If you are helping someone with dementia to dress, allow plenty of time so that neither of you feels rushed. They may take longer to process information than they used to, and this will affect their ability to make choices, but if you can make dressing an enjoyable activity, the person will feel more relaxed and confident.

  • Try to use the time to chat about what you are doing, and anything else that might be of interest.
  • If the person resists your efforts to help, try leaving them for a while. They may be more amenable if you try again a little later.

Other aspects of grooming

When the person is dressed, they might like you to help them with their hair. A woman may like to wear make up, perfume or jewellery, and this is another opportunity for her to have a say in her appearance. If she enjoys having her nails painted, you might like to do this for her. A man may like to use aftershave or a hair product such as Brylcreem, or to wear braces or cufflinks.

Tips: Practical ideas for what to wear

If the person has some difficulties with dressing, or dressing has become a struggle, it may help to look for clothes that are easy to put on and take off, such as clothes with larger neck openings and front fastenings, or with no fastenings, or to make some adaptations:

  • Use Velcro fastenings or poppers rather than buttons.
  • Shoes with laces may be difficult for someone with dementia to manage. Try well-fitting slip-on shoes or shoes with Velcro fastenings, or replace shoelaces with elastic.
  • The person shouldn’t wear slippers for more than a few hours, as they may not offer enough support to the feet.
  • For women, front-opening bras may be easier to manage. Try to avoid self-supporting stockings, as they can cause circulation problems.
  • For men, boxer shorts may be easier to manage than Y-fronts.

Remember that if someone is not enjoying wearing something − either because it is physically uncomfortable, or because they don’t like it, or it is new and seems unfamiliar − this may cause them distress and discomfort.

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