The Right Clothes for Senior Independence

Sylish senior woman

"Mom has always been a snappy dresser—but with her arthritis, bows and jewelry clasps are challenging these days."

We all want to look our best. Putting on a nice outfit is a real self-esteem boost. Yet as we grow older, we usually have less tolerance for uncomfortable clothing like tight jeans or high heels! Mobility challenges from the effects of a stroke, Parkinson's disease or arthritis can make it harder to put on a dress, zip our pants or tie our shoes.

This isn't a matter of mere vanity. Researchers from the University of Missouri recently published several studies suggesting that the availability of appropriate, adaptive clothing for people with disabilities is a human rights issue. Said health sciences professor Allison Kabel, "People don't enter the world able-bodied and independent, but the clothing industry continues to exclusively cater to able-bodied individuals, despite the fact that people with disabilities often miss out on important life events due to clothing-related problems. People with mobility impairments can still live independently, but it is more difficult if they don't have clothing that meets their needs."

Kabel and her team found that many of the 30 million Americans living with mobility challenges and impairments experience "apparel-related barriers" that keep them from work, exercise, and attending social engagements. "While it may be an afterthought for some, clothing and appearance are not trivial," Kabel said. "What we wear matters in how we participate in our communities. For people with disabilities, the lack of adaptive clothing is not just a burden, it is a barrier for community participation."

Visit the University of Missouri website to watch a video about the work of Dr. Allison Kabel and her team examining clothing-related barriers.

When selecting clothing for a senior with disabilities, consider:

Style—Let's address this topic first! Our dignity suffers if we spend the day in our bathrobe, yet much conventional clothing is uncomfortable or hard to put on. Even though many seniors balk at the idea of adaptive clothing, today's senior-friendly clothing choices aren't limited to muumuus and sweat suits (though both of those can be cute, comfy choices). Specialty companies sell adaptive clothing via catalog or online.

Ease of dressing—Conventional clothing designs and fasteners can be difficult to manage when a person has limited range of motion and reduced manual dexterity due to arthritis, stroke or other conditions. Instead of standard buttons, zippers, snaps and shoelaces, choose garments and shoes with hook-and-eye or Velcro closures and easy-pull zippers. Elastic-waist pants, pull-on polo shirts, and bras and blouses that close in the front make it easier to dress.

Comfort—Garments should fit properly to allow for ease of movement. Soft, natural fabrics are less likely to irritate the sensitive skin of older adults. Avoid snaps and buttons that could dig into the skin if the person sits or leans on them for a long time.

Safety—Did you know that clothing choices affect the risk of falling? To prevent slips, choose shoes that support the feet and are nonskid. And while loose or baggy clothes might seem comfortable, a person can get tangled up in them and lose their balance. Pants that are too long also can lead to a fall.

Health—Dressing for the season prevents overheating or chill. And clothing shouldn't be so tight as to cut off circulation. Socks can be a big culprit in this department—if they're leaving marks, they're too tight. (If the doctor has prescribed compression stockings, wear those as recommended. Today, they come in cute styles, as well.)

Clothing for home care clients

Professional caregiver helping client dress

"I want to wear my gold bracelet to church, but with my arthritis…"

When you think of professional home care, you might primarily think of assistance with eating, walking, transportation, supervision, medication reminders and hygiene care. Don't forget dressing! Professional in-home caregivers can help clients put on some of their special occasion outfits and accessories that might have challenging fasteners.

For everyday wear, adaptive clothing is still a good choice to preserve the client's independence, with the caregiver helping as needed.

If your loved one needs quite a bit of help dressing, choose garments that make the process easier for both the caregiver and your loved one, such as blouses or shirts that fasten in the back. Absorbent undergarments and easy-to-take-off pants help with toileting. For people with dementia who sometimes remove their clothing at inappropriate times, back closures are a good choice. In-home caregivers also wash clothing to keep clients looking sharp.

Today, experts call for more universal design in clothing—clothing styles that work for people of every ability. We might be seeing that in today's styles, worn by younger people and many baby boomers. Walk through any Silicon Valley office and you see young workers in comfy hoodies, stretchy skirts and walking shoes. Of course, the skinny jeans that are part of the uniform have been found to be dangerously tight even for young people—but if you look closely, you see that some smart folks have selected soft, pull-on "jeggings" as a less-restricting substitute. Let's hope the comfort clothes era continues!


For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.


Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.