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Posted: February 29, 2008

When Dressing Becomes a Chore

Solutions for Keeping Loved Ones Independent

"You know you're getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces
and wonder what else you could do while you're down there."
– George Burns

When you got dressed this morning, you probably didn’t think much about all the little movements involved that require dexterity, flexibility and a bit of strength. You most likely didn’t give it a second thought when you pulled your shirt over your head, zipped a zipper, fastened buttons or pulled on your socks and shoes. But for millions of our elderly, those simple acts can be painful, frustrating and nearly impossible because of physical limitations resulting from frailty, illness or disability.

The number of Americans affected by the basic daily challenge of getting dressed is staggering: More than 40 million have arthritis, which limits their range of movement and can make even the simplest movements excruciatingly painful. As many as 700,000 suffer a stroke each year, often leaving limbs immobile and inflexible. Hundreds of thousands more of us must deal with physical constraints resulting from diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Now, just imagine if all these people could no longer live independently simply because they could no longer tie their shoes or button their shirt.
And this is just the elderly themselves; what about their caregivers, who are likewise impacted by the limitations of their loved ones to keeping up with the basics needed to function independently?

Common Problems

One fact is very clear -- the most common problems that elderly people have with dressing are actions requiring dexterity, such as manipulating fasteners like buttons, hooks and eyes, and zippers. What’s more, movements that require strength or the flexibility to raise and lower the arms may be extremely painful. Because of this, pulling clothing on and off over the head or bending over to reach socks and shoes can become exercises in agony and frustration. People who have had strokes may be unable to raise their arms and maneuver them into sleeves, and caregivers will find it awkward and exhausting trying to help them wrangle into and out of clothing.

Fortunately, demand for solutions for the growing population of elderly with special needs as well as their caregivers has led to innovation in adaptive clothing and tools that take the frustration out of getting dressed. You can now purchase attractive clothing modified in ways that make it easy to put on and take off. Or, you can make simple alterations to your loved one’s clothes that will accomplish the same purpose.

Additionally, some nifty tools have been created to assist with the overall process of getting dressed, and you can help your loved one stay safe while dressing by making a few simple changes to the way they go about it.

Altering Existing Clothing

If you are handy with a sewing machine and needle and thread, you can make simple alterations to existing clothing to make it easier to manage. The nice thing about making alterations is that it allows your loved ones to continue wearing their favorite pieces, such as holiday dresses or a favorite shirt or blouse. Here are some ideas for simple changes that will help:

Purchasing Adaptive Clothing

Shirley Gustin started her New Hampshire business, Adaptive Clothing, because her many years of experience as a nurses’ aide showed her the need for clothing that is both easy to negotiate and looks nice. In her clothing line, Shirley has taken great pains to maintain the dignity of seniors by using attractive fabrics, coordinating outfits, and creating designs that maximize modesty.

“Sometimes we forget that it is still important to elderly people to look nice,” she says. “If you take a 90-year-old woman and put her in a pretty blouse with a skirt that matches, and someone tells her how nice she looks, believe me, it will make her day!”

So far, relatively few businesses specialize in adaptive clothing. Shirley’s clothing line for men and women can be viewed online, or you can call the store at 1-800-572-2224. Buck and Buck is another good source, as are Clothing Solutions and Silvert’s, among others.

When purchasing clothes for your loved one, keep these tips in mind:

Shirley mentioned that bras can present special problems. Many older women have rounded shoulders, causing them to bend forward and compress the chest area. This can result in the bra band and snap digging into the flesh. Because of this it’s often a good idea for older women to switch over to undershirts for greater comfort.

Safety While Dressing

Even with clothing that is easier to put on, actually getting dressed can hold dangers for your loved one. Frail people shouldn’t try to balance when dressing; it’s much safer to have them sit or lie on the bed when pulling on pants and skirts or putting on socks and shoes. It’s also a good idea to have a sturdy chair with a fairly high seat for your loved one to use when putting on shoes and socks. The chair should have arms so they can be used for stability.

Several assistive tools are also available to help with safe dressing. There’s a dressing aid that holds clothes open so they are easy to slip into. You also can purchase a long-handled shoe horn that makes it unnecessary to bend over when putting on shoes. Sock helpers that allow you to pull socks up without bending over are another innovative dressing tool. The online store is a great source for a variety of gadgets that can help.

Other Considerations

It’s actually easier to match up buttons and buttonholes when looking in a mirror, so make sure your loved one has easy access to one. This is also enables them to see if have dressed appropriately and can reassure them that they look nice. Don’t underestimate the importance to your loved one of self-esteem and outlook that comes from looking good and feeling comfortable.

Making wardrobe changes and giving your loved ones some useful tools may help them look good, stay independent longer and boost their spirits and self-esteem.


Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at

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