Changing-Room Blues

Our clothes are important: they help to define who we are. Even when we have no style, that’s our style. So when dementia starts making it difficult to dress yourself, and eventually you have to rely on somebody else to select your clothes and put them on, no wonder it makes you mad. You’re losing your independence, your freedom to express yourself.

In this story, first published in 2015, I describe some of the difficulties we faced when clothes started to become a problem for Lena. In a separate Carers Tips newsletter, I’ll explain some of the ways I tried to minimise Lena’s frustration – and make things easier for myself …

50 years of fashion
Lena and her 50 years of fashion

Lena’s grumbling to herself in the bedroom.

– What’s wrong with these things? … Why? … Grr!

She knows I’m just down the hallway, on the computer. She’s telling me she needs help. Better go.

– You OK?

– No, look at these things. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. Look.

She’s sitting on the edge of the bed. It’s a jeans problem.

– Well, I think you’ve got them on inside out. Look, this seam here goes on the inside.

– No this is the way they always are. I know how to put on trousers.

– Let’s give it a try anyway, shall we? Here, shall I pull a leg?

It’s the third time this morning she’s changed clothes. Boredom. Time for a change of scene, a walk maybe. She stands up, shakes the trousers down to her ankles, then hoists them up again and begins to button up.

– No, they’re still inside out. You need to take them right off first.

– Yes, of course. I knew that. That’s just what I was going to do. Do you think I don’t know how to get dressed?

The problem is, over the past couple of months, she really doesn’t — although I can’t tell her that. It might be another little victory for Alzheimers, but it’s my job to keep the morale up.

There’s no better way to boost Lena’s morale than going clothes-shopping with her, finding her something that makes her look good. It was something we never used to do together — shopping of any sort was never a big favourite of mine. But now she absolutely needs me there, to help her make choices and get in and out of clothes in the fitting-room, I’ve come to enjoy it. It feels good to help her feel good. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. The jacket we bought a couple of weeks ago is still new in Lena’s eyes every time she sees it.
– Have you seen my new jacket? I really like it. When did we get it? Was it you who gave it to me?
Fitting-rooms. It’s OK in the smaller boutiques where there’s no-one much around. I can generally slip into the booth with Lena and help her get the right clothes off, try the new ones on, align the buttons, make a size judgement …
But if I want to make clothes shopping a regular treat, then I need to think about affordability too, so we head off to one of the big chain stores. That’s where the problems begin.
We’re in the ladieswear department and there’s a long queue of women waiting to try things on. Not a man in sight. Scared off probably by the Amazon grimly guarding her fitting area, cross-armed, watching me suspiciously already, walkie-talkie ready to intercept. I get the hint.
– Maybe not here. It’s a really long queue.
– But I’d like to try it on.
– It’s really busy though. And I don’t think they’ll let me come in with you.
– Why not?
I sneak a glance at the gatekeeper again. Still keeping an eye on me. Me in the ladies’ changing-rooms? Not a chance. Everyone’s a sexual predator these days.
But it’s not just a gender thing, it seems. The gatekeepers are there to protect your privacy. Even when you need to share.
For me, the bra has always been one of life’s great mysteries. The dynamics of the thing, I mean. Band-size, cup-size, shoulder-strap adjustment. I just don’t get it. A tape-measure simply doesn’t cut it — when will someone invent a three-dimensional fitting-tool? Perhaps they already have.
I guess. The size is always hopelessly wrong.
With last month’s bra purchases lying once-used, now unwanted in the drawer, I decide to call in experience. At the weekend, Lena goes off on a shopping-jolly with daughter Josie.
– So how did it go?
– Yes, I think we’ve got the perfect fit. But it was awkward trying it on. The woman outside the fitting-room didn’t want to let me go inside with Mum.
– So what did you say?
– Nothing. I just stared her down and went in anyway. She gave me a bit of an odd look, but she didn’t stop me in the end.
So it’s not just me! But at least Josie managed better than I did.

Yesterday, I was talking to Lesley, who we met on a research programme to test the effects of regular easy exercise on people with dementia. She was asking whether we’d be interested in joining in a dementia champions meeting next week — the group is trying to arrange special swimming sessions for people with dementia and their partners at the local pool.

So why would people with dementia need special treatment to go swimming? Well, here’s one reason — and it’s changing rooms again.

There’s a pool at the leisure centre where Lena and I are members. When we’re just using the gym there’s no problem. When we walk down there, we’re both already wearing our kit, so all we have to do is to slip out of our outdoor clothes and put them in the locker. We don’t need the changing rooms.

But it was different when we wanted to swim a few months back. I headed off to the Men’s changing-room, got myself ready and waited for Lena outside the Ladies’. After a few minutes she emerged, fully dressed, carrying her bag.

– Oh. Aren’t you going to change?

– What do you mean?

– To get ready for swimming.

– Oh yes. OK.

A few minutes pass. Lena comes out again, still fully dressed. Looks at me in my trunks and towel … and realises.

– I don’t like it in there. There are too many people.

– Shall we give swimming a miss today?

– Maybe. Yes.

We’ve given swimming a miss every day since then.

The whole point of the campaign we’re setting up is to help people with dementia keep on doing the things that make them feel good — like buying clothes and swimming. Keeping up morale is the best antidote we have right now, keeping illness and depression at bay.
We talk about dementia-friendly communities, those of us in the know. We say how important it is for people with dementia to be ‘included’. Our little experiences show how far we still have to go.
So what can we do about it?
Explain to the gatekeepers? Talk to the person at the reception desk? ‘We’re a special case.’ That’s not the answer. I absolutely get why they’d be reluctant to let a male into the Ladies’ changing room: they’ve got the feelings of 1000 other customers to take into account, not just ours. And anyway, it’s not exactly going to make Lena feel great if we have to keep announcing that she can’t manage to get changed. Remember?
– Do you think I don’t know how to get dressed?
Special facilities? Perhaps so. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that it was rare to find toilets for the disabled. That campaign worked.
Come to think of it, why couldn’t we double up, and change in the disabled toilet?
Still maybe, there would be questions asked if two apparently able-bodied people, male and female, went in and locked the door behind them. So how could we show that our intentions were honourable, without making a song and dance about Alzheimers?
Perhaps the answer could be a simple badge, a symbol that we train the community to recognise. Worn just as we wear a poppy to show we remember, or displayed like the Blue Badge for parking. Dementia badges already exist, but they’re generally worn by people who are proudly showing their support for the cause that they’re proud to help. We don’t have a badge for people who need help.
Some would say, I’m sure, that a badge might cause the person with dementia embarrassment. But what reason is there to be embarrassed? Our town centres are full of mobility scooters, helping people to carry on with their normal lives even when they find it difficult to walk. They’re not embarrassed. And the scooters serve another purpose too. They’re a symbol, a signal that the user might need a bit of help when shopping, and people will generally respond. So why shouldn’t a simple badge serve people with dementia in the same way? If we could train the public to recognise it, it would surely be liberating.


Our related Carer Tips newsletter, where I describe how I tried to minimise Lena’s frustrations with clothes and getting dressed – and to make things easier for myself.



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2 thoughts on “Changing-Room Blues”

  1. Reading your ‘Changing-Room Blues’ blog was interesting because as I was reading it the thought ‘Why not use the disabled toilets’, came to me and then I read on and you suggested the same thing. To my mind, disabled toilets would be…not ideal, (no one likes changing in a toilet), but a good short term alternative mainly because of the space they have. They would need to have a full length mirror and some hooks to hang clothes on and voila! you have your changing room at virtually no extra cost. The only other important thing would be to have a dementia logo put on the front of the door next to the wheelchair logo. It would not be that long before we (joe public), recognise the sign and accept it in the same way we accept that some disable people need someone to help them with toileting. Eventually, there may well be separate dementia changing rooms but as all these things take time this seems a good stop gap. It has to be better than two of you trying to get into those horrible tiny cubicles with the curtain opening, letting the world know what state of undress you’re at every time you stick an elbow out!


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