The bulge at the front of Mom’s pants drove me nuts.
“What a crappy design,” I thought to myself ironically each time I saw her, which was every day, religiously.
She’d always been well turned out with great style and panache. Not meticulous or fastidious. Not prim and proper. Not designer, although her wardrobe included several unique pieces. Classic country chic – that was her look. Matching shorts and tops for the golf course. Straight skirt, crisp shirt, cashmere sweater and penny loafers to show million-dollar properties to a high-end clientele.
Now she was living with dementia in a “nursing home” where she was dressed in the same dirty clothes for several days in a row to cut down on laundering costs, and her “adult protective underwear” didn’t fit as it should. As if there wasn’t enough to cry about, the butt-ugly bulge was icing on the dementia cake.
I had “changed” Mom myself many times after asking one of the Dementia Jail staff to show me how. I wanted to do everything I could to make Mom as comfortable as she could be under the circumstances.
“You wrap the long tabs around her waist and attach them at the back with this sticky bit,” the caregiver demonstrated. “It’s kind of like Velcro.”
The tabs overlapped to create a waistband.
“Then you pass the pad through her legs from front to back,” she said as she did it. “The back part also has sticky bits on the corners, they attach to the waistband. It’s sort of like an old-style baby’s diaper, except the place where the safety pins would be is at the back instead of at the front.”
I’d never changed a diaper in my life, but it wasn’t rocket science. This caregiver had been doing it for yonks; her demo and instructions were clear. No doubt she had shared the same procedure with dozens of trainees over the years, passing knowhow from one person to the next.
“But what about the bulge?” I asked.
The ridge started at the bottom right hand side of Mom’s tummy and ran down her upper thigh (think over-endowed male ballet dancer without a cup who “dresses” right). Besides being unattractive, I guessed it would be uncomfortable for her.
“What bulge?” The caregiver hadn’t noticed. I showed her.
“Hmmmm. I don’t know,” she was unhelpful on this score. “All I know is this is the way you put them on.”
The bulge continued to annoy me. I just couldn’t get over the shitty “diaper” design and the ugly bump. But I didn’t say anything more about it to anyone.
One afternoon about year into her stay in jail, I brought Mom to the toilet to change her shortly after I got there for my daily visit. I could smell she was long overdue. When I pulled down her trousers, I found that, besides being full, her “pad” had been put on backwards. The waistband’s long tabs were attached at her belly instead of at the back, as the personal support worker had shown me they should be.
My blood began to boil. Mom’s Dementia Jail hosted student nurses on practicums; a dozen or so had been there for several weeks. Apparently one of them had “done” Mom, but no one had shown her how to “do” her properly.
“You’d think they would read the instructions,” I said to Mom, exasperated. I’d sat her down on the toilet by this time; she had no idea what I was talking about.
“What instructions, Punkie?”
“It’s okay Mom,” I chastised myself for not keeping my mouth shut for her benefit. “I forgot to read the instructions. Don’t worry, I’ll get them now.”
I went to the closet and grabbed the bag of TENA incontinence pads from the shelf and brought it back to the bathroom. Mom couldn’t be left alone for long without risk of her standing up and then falling down, which is what would lead to her death two years later.
I looked at the package. The instructions were poor. A series of three diagrams showed the midriff and upper thighs only. The only clue that this might be the front of the torso was a tiny dot of a belly button. Even then it was hard to figure out. The drawings only showed one perspective. There were no buttocks, nipples or other physical features that would have made it unambiguous.
I extracted a fresh pad to investigate further. Oh my God. Once I examined the pad with a curious eye and laid it on the floor, the cause of the bulge became immediately obvious – the pads were being put on backwards. One of the student nurses had obviously read the instructions or figured out for herself how the pad should be put on properly.
It was impossible not to see which bit was meant to be at the front and which at the back once the pad was relatively flat. One end was much wider and fuller than the other; it should cover the behind. The other was much smaller, narrower and far less bulky; it should go at the front. The bulge was caused by the billowy back of the pad being scrunched up bellow Mom’s belly, between her legs and down the top of her thigh instead of where it should have been – covering her bum.
The problem had nothing to do with the design of the pads and everything to do with how they were being put on.
This incontinence product was clearly meant for someone who could dress herself. The wearer wraps the long tabs around her waist and attaches them at the front like an overlapping belt. She bends down, reaches between her legs and pulls the front part through and up, then attaches its two corners to the “belt” with the sticky bits and voila!
Here’s a demo:
Easy, fast, and simple for someone who is able to do it herself; not so for a caregiver assisting someone with dementia who needs help in the toilet. For a caregiver, putting this type of pad on the way it is designed to be worn is cumbersome, slow and problematic.
I know because as soon as I discovered how the pads should be worn, I began putting them on properly. I reckoned it would be more comfortable and sanitary for Mom – not to mention that it eliminated the unsightly bulge at the front of her trousers, and reduced the likelihood of the pad overflowing and drenching the back as had happened on several occasions that I knew of.
I asked the staff questions about the toileting procedures, and suggested the pads be put on as they were designed to be. But even when I shared what I had learned, the jail staff continued to put Mom’s pads on back to front. Why? Because it was faster and easier and that’s the way they’d always done it. Why change? Who cares?
“People with dementia don’t know the difference,” some might have said.
“No one’s ever complained,” others might have echoed.
People with dementia may or may not know the difference; but I’m sure they would feel the difference just as anyone else would feel the difference if their underwear were on back to front.
Likewise, people with dementia may not complain in the same way we might. Maybe we don’t hear them because we haven’t taken the time to learn their language. Perhaps we’re not listening well enough.
Robbed of their voices, people with dementia use their physicality to communicate. As a result, they are often sedated for aggressive behaviour that is caused by the way we interact with them rather than by the disease itself. We are often the cause, they are the ones that get the blame.
My mom was much more aware and “with it” than people gave her credit for, and she knew it. Nevertheless, she may not have been able to fully articulate if, when and why something felt uncomfortable. Ill-fitting clothing that pinched or pulled or was too loose or too tight might have caused her to be anxious and distressed without her being able to say why.
I would be really unhappy if I were made to wear my underwear back to front. Wouldn’t you be? This is a perfect metaphor for the way we currently treat the elderly and people with dementia. Like my Mom’s pads, the whole damn thing is the reverse of how it should be.
Similar stories of neglect and abuse are shared by tens of thousands of others in North America and around the world. If we don’t make significant changes soon, it will be the story of millions more in the not-too-distant future.
It’s time for a change that isn’t ass backwards.
*Note: I wrote this post long before the tragedy of COVID-19 manifested. Sadly, many of my fears became a reality with the pandemic. Still, there is time to prevent more needless suffering in the future. Please speak up for better healthcare for us all, young and old.
**Note: I’ve had comments from care workers saying they have to put pads on backwards in order to make it more difficult for residents to remove them for one reason or another. I completely reject that notion as yet another form of physical restraint. Furthermore, there was no reason whatsoever that would have justified putting my mother’s pads on backwards. It was simply a matter of ignorance, convenience and efficiency.