Dignity. What is it? The word has lost its meaning with use. As a caregiver I see the word splashed colorfully to advertise everything from incontinence care to the wishes of the dying. At a recent caregivers expo I inquired about the many display ads boasting “We Protect Dignity”. The booth attendants were usually taken aback at the question. Our exchange would go something like this: “What do you mean here.. this statement regarding dignity? “Well,.. we treat our clients with dignity?” “How?” I’d ask. “Well, we are nice to them.. uh, we believe dignity is important” Oh, In what way?” I ask again. I smile as I hear the same buzz words repeated without the specifics: Respect, personal privacy, and the big “D” word, “Dignity”.

Let’s face it. Dignity is easier to define when you lose it. Just ask anyone who’s familiar with the dreaded “ADL’s.” Those activities of daily living can be spelled out “Another Dignity Lost.” I witnessed the drama played out with the variety of health aides visiting our home during my mom’s illness. In hushed tones the necessary details are exchanged regarding her illness and personal care. After the rubber gloves are tossed and the paperwork signed, there’s a pause before the words come. Mom speaks softly. “I don’t like that. Would you like it if she took you in the shower?” Another piece of the dignity puzzle is removed.

Before it’s taken away or “lost”, how did it get there in the first place? I personally believe we are all born with it. “It” being that treasure deep within, the invisible value of our being. Our parents and family reinforce that we are worthy of the attention and time they invest in our continued existence. I hold on to the belief that our value is “God-given”, as people with a purpose, a destiny to fulfill. I have also been taught that God gives us free will, to make choices along the way. Without the freedom to choose, our dignity cannot find expression. “Give me Liberty or give me death!” The old battle cry has a familiar ring to it.

Let’s talk about choice again. Remember the childhood chant that was sing-songed “Bear the pain or bear the shame?” I don’t know about you, but I would pick pain any day. The thought of anyone hearing, viewing, touching or whiffing any part of my delicate humanity would cause me to shudder. My body belongs to me. It is my personal private property. My clothing not only covers me, but also offers me identity.

The greatest cover up, I believe, is the making light of “OK I’m guilty!” and denial of our deepest need to be covered. After years of lovingly and faithfully being covered, dressed and accessorized, how can I ponder the thought of being viewed naked by total strangers, or even worse, by my own family members?

To my amazement, there had not been one type of “cover” designed for those who need to be cared for (and viewed!) by others. No styles, designers, or boutiques suiting the birthday suit. This frustration led to a personal quest for a solution to this troubling problem. My vision for a personal care garment was born just in time for my mom and me. When I needed to assist her in the shower, this simple garment helped me to discover the relationship between dignity and clothing. Her honor found expression by covering what was private. Those intimate boundaries were intact. Sharing my discovery with others, I was encouraged to patent and manufacture my new garment (which I named “Honor Guard”) to bless those who likewise were struggling with these difficult issues.

Searching dignity’s meaning took me on quite a journey, deeper and wider than I’ve ever imagined. Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect”. My quest continues to understand this intangible state of being, and to examine tangible means of protecting and restoring dignity lost.

By Robin Lenart