Oct 18, 2016

Dementia Patient Wears the Same Clothes Over and Over

If you'd met him late in his dementia, you'd invariably see him in a stained plaid shirt and baggy, wrinkled gray trousers -- day after day after day.

Tips on Alzheimer's and dementia care.
By Paula Spencer Scott
Alzheimer's Reading Room

My father had always been a careful dresser.

After he retired from his life of white shirts and ties, he wore a full rainbow of golf shirts and owned more cardigans than Mister Rogers.

How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

But if you'd met him late in his dementia, you'd invariably see him in a stained plaid shirt and baggy, wrinkled gray trousers -- day after day after day.

The worst part was trying to wash them. He wouldn't put them in the hamper.

Instead, he hung them up and put them on again in the morning — before anyone could sneak in and spirit them away to the laundry room.

Why it happens:

Impaired short term memory causes someone with dementia to forget the clothes are dirty as soon as they undress.

Impaired judgment means that the usual clues (stained, wrinkled, smelly) don't add up to the usual response (put them in the hamper to be washed).

Donning the same handy clothes the next day can be easier than having to choose among many clothes in drawers or the closet. Making choices can be cognitively overwhelming. Familiarity - in contrast - is comforting.

TRY this:
  • Steer clear of logic, such as pointing out, "Honestly, Dad! You wore the same outfit yesterday!" Not only is it hard for someone with dementia to follow logic but you risk putting him on the defensive and setting up a no-win argument.

  • When he's sound asleep, go in his room to remove the dirty clothes. Lay out something similar in the same spot. As long as replacement clothes are handy in the morning, he's apt to forget about the dirty favorite. If he should notice, make a big fuss over a white lie: "Oh Dad! I'm so sorry! I spilled juice on your favorite shirt yesterday and nearly ruined it! I've sent it to the cleaners, but meanwhile I found this one. Oh, I hope you can forgive me!"
  • If your loved one prefers having the old clothes hung back up, help him do so. Keep the dirty clothes to one side of the closet, so you know which they are and can wash them later. Put clean clothes in a more prominent place.

  • Pare down the closet, so there are far fewer options (just a few shirts, for example), which can make choosing clean clothes easier. Bonus: If you make sure everything matches, there will be no more clashing outfits. Choose solids in a favorite color over patterns, which can be distracting and irritating to someone with dementia.
  • Buy identical multiple versions of favorites, so one set can be washed while the other is worn. Bonus: Only one type of sock, for example, means no more mismatches.
  • If your loved one sleeps in the same clothes, your only chance may be to take them away for washing when he bathes. Bring clean clothes into the bathroom to put on afterward. You may have to settle for a change of clothes only every few days if he won't bathe daily. 

To help you cope:
  • Make sure the real problem is dirt and odor, not your own irritation by the repetition of the outfit. A few generations ago, nobody changed clothes every day.

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of SURVIVING ALZHEIMER'S: Practical tips and soul-saving wisdom for caregivers. She is a contributing editor at Caring.com, a former Woman's Day magazine columnist, and a fellow of the Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging program.

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Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room