How I designed a New “Birthday Suit”

dignityBy Robin Lenart

During a recent hospital stay, I was frozen with anxiety when I caught sight of my friendly nurse coming in my direction carrying a wash basin and towels. She heard it all before I’m sure…”Thanks, I’ll wait till I get home…I can do it myself…Ugh, I don’t need a bath anyway, really.”

The casual approach didn’t seem to work very well. As the adrenaline fueled my body, I wondered why I couldn’t just tell my attending nurse the “naked” truth?

I was embarrassed.

This peculiar emotion confounded my senses and reason. Being uncovered physically was bad enough, but exposure of my vulnerability threatened my very dignity.

Thankfully, as a paying customer, my excuses were reluctantly received. The staff confirmed my notion. “The showers in a hospital are rarely used”, they said. The relief of going home calmed my anxiety.

How would I have felt if I were already “home”?

My mother and I faced this troubling question after she came to live with my husband and me. As her health faltered, aides and therapists came to offer their services. In hushed tones the necessary details were exchanged regarding her therapy and personal care. After the rubber gloves were tossed and the paperwork signed, a pause brought her eyes toward mine. Mom spoke softly. “I don’t like this…would you like it if she took you in the shower?”

She had been a champion for me for whatever cause I was fighting my whole life. When I was eight and hospitalized, she smuggled underwear into my room so I’d feel covered and comfortable while wearing the dreaded open-backed “gown”. Now that I was her advocate I wanted to help her keep her dignity. If I volunteered to help with the bathing task, could I honor her while stepping over

Her intimate boundaries? And so my quest began to understand and deal with this troubling issue.

Should I out-smart it or just make peace with it? I began to ask questions, and take notes from those I met while caring for my Mom. I wanted to hear how others were dealing with this issue of being body-shy in the presence of a caregiver.

I heard from compassionate nurses and aides who suggested creative ways of staying covered. Showering in a slip, towels or keeping the undergarments on during bathing were a few. But when these wet garments needed to come off, the problem of exposure returned.

Having a choice to say no was a popular solution, but if a shower was truly needed, then what? The Certified Nursing Assistants I questioned said about half of their new clients refused baths due to embarrassment.

Oddly enough, among the bath-dodgers, they said doctors who were under their care as patients were the worst offenders! Weren’t they the ones who would ease our embarrassment with the line, “Don’t worry , I’ve seen it all before”? All kidding aside, the Medical community acknowledges the embarrassment factor with a variety of cover-ups. However flimsy, these paper shawls and dresses may not be the most fashionable, but I’m grateful they are not taken away.

For professional and family caregivers who desired the best for their residents and loved ones, there was definitely a challenge finding a solution to this delicate dilemma of intimate care.

This frustration led me on a quest to find a better way. With the help of my mom (who was my quality control specialist) I was inspired to design a stylized garment that would solve this problem. It needed to be water-friendly, but not get in the way of personal hygiene. Hey, why not cover just the “bare” essentials?

I envisioned a flap-type wrap, which resembled the garment Tarzan or Jane would wear under a waterfall. Perhaps updating the loin cloth with overlapping panels would help give access to personal hygiene, without having to be removed. A dry version may also help with the removal of a wet one. The personal care garment was born!

After I finished my sketches, the day came for me to assist my mom in a quick body clean-up. A makeshift prototype was quickly made from a couple old hand towels stitched and safety-pinned together. We both made it through the bathing crisis without the discomfort of embarrassment.

I discovered from this simple garment, there was a definite relationship between dignity and clothing. By covering what was private to her, Mom’s honor found expression. This affirmation of her dignity was not just an attitude, but a real barrier that communicated respect.

The dread of boundary crossing was gone. Her new “birthday suit” was worn for showering, clothing changes, quick sponge baths and even help in the bathroom.

Through the next year, we both soldiered it out, as she needed more help. Many emotions were felt and shared. Embarrassment was not one of them.

Dignity preservation for bathing was a new frontier.

Some of my notions regarding this subject-matter were explored. Can dignity be restored after it’s lost? Did age matter? I believed losing dignity was not a right of passage into old age.

I surveyed seniors to measure their DQ (Dignity Quotient). How did they really feel about being naked in the presence of a family or professional caregiver? Would embarrassment prevent them from answering honestly? Would they answer any differently than the general public?

Here are the results from a public questionnaire given during a senior expo:

Women who felt uncomfortable ~ 88%

Men who felt uncomfortable ~ 58%

Women who said being covered would make a difference ~ 97%

Men who said being covered would make a difference ~ 75%

I also asked the same questions to residents living in our neighborhood assisted living facility, except this time it was done in privacy. Each one was encouraged to share their opinions. Issues included the embarrassment of opposite gender aides, and the humiliation of their grown children seeing them exposed.

Every one questioned felt having a choice was important. All, without exception spoke of situations that caused embarrassment, where a cover would make a difference.

Curiosity fueled my efforts to chase down the staff for their comments. You can guess the response. It was through these experiences that led me to start a nonprofit organization to help professional and family caregivers, and yes, for moms like mine. The

original garment my mom wore was a model for a line of personal care garments that’s offered through our charitable organization.

I believe Mom would be pleased to know how many people have been covered and comforted by the garment she helped to inspire.

Dignity is a powerful state of being. It’s like a warm sunset that covers us with a beautiful glow of appreciation. And who wouldn’t like to be seen in a good light?

Robin Lenart is a conference speaker and Executive Director of Dignity Resource Council. For more information about dignity preservation and personal care garments, visit www.dignityrc.org

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