In recent years, patient-centered design has become the norm in health care–and alongside changes in architecture and services, many designers have rethought the uncomfortable, revealing hospital gown. But for patients with chronic diseases or those in home care, who might undergo treatment for years, the options are sparser. They need clothing that’s flexible enough for treatments, but designs that don’t look obviously (or dehumanizingly) medical. And as the percentage of people who need long-term care increases, one startup sees a new market.
“The days of the floral nightie with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders–these are not the elderly of the future,” says Nikla Lancksweert, the cofounder of the patient clothing startup Inga Wellbeing, who compares one of the company’s dresses to a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress.
The company’s line of clothing, designed by the fashion designer and cofounder Fiona McGreal to look as normal as possible while being as functional as possible, is aimed at baby boomers, who have now reached retirement age. “Our future senior citizens are very active grandparents and active members of the community, and they don’t want to suddenly find themselves having to don a hospital gown with an institutional print and sit there and feel less than the person that they know they are,” Lancksweert says. “There’s very much that recognition that they’re a generation that expects and wants something different.”
The boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, number 78 million people, and the sheer size of the generation will likely have outsized effects on the American health care system. According to the Congressional Budget Office, spending on Medicare will have doubled to 8% by 2035, growing to 15% by 2080–and the generation already spends more on their health than their parents did. “There are more and more people that are receiving medical treatment in their lifetime,” Lancksweert says. “The health care system is struggling to cope. I think there’s a great number of people who are underserved at the moment.”
This is the market that Inga Wellbeing is targeting with a collection of patient clothes that it released earlier this year, after four years of development in collaboration with doctors, nurses, and patients. The company was inspired by Lancksweert’s own experience caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 52. “Not only did she lose her hair, she also lost her dignity and her independence and her self-confidence,” Lancksweert says. “Through no one’s fault and the realities of frequent hospitalizations and some pretty invasive treatment, and then some having to be examined by nurses and doctors, she seemed to spend a lot of time not looking and feeling like herself.”
After her mother’s treatment was over, Lancksweert decided that no one should have to go through the same kind of experience–and so she teamed up with cofounder Claire Robinson and McGreal. Lancksweert believes that outside of the realm of treatment, one of the best ways to help people feel like themselves is through clothing. The company’s designs are simple garments, with secret snaps that enable doctors or nurses access for examination and cleaning. The snaps also make it easier for patients to dress themselves, giving them more independence.
While other patient clothing available online often looks like a nightgown, the Inga Wellbeing collection can be worn to sleep or during the day while still making the patient feel dressed and comfortable. Take, for instance, a wrap-style dress that opens to the back with the front tie that Lancksweert likened to a Diane von Furstenberg design. All of the details have been thought through, including the three-quarter-length sleeves, which provide range of motion and modesty by covering the elbow where there is often bruising from IVs while also keeping the patient cool. There are multiple pockets for personal items, and a flattering cowl neckline for modesty if the patient doesn’t wear a bra. Hidden snaps along the sides and bottom of the torso give caregivers access to drains or ports on the patient’s midsection without her having to lift her dress (it’s purposefully called a dress and not a nightgown, though it can be worn to sleep). They’re not inexpensive–it costs about $90, and tops are in the $55 to $80 range.
Inga Wellbeing is part of a larger trend toward patient-centered design in health care. Studies have shown that people who receive more holistic, humanizing treatment that includes the body, mind, and soul actually heal faster, so it’s becoming increasingly important for designers working in the health care space to be more attuned to the patient’s experience than the medical professional’s experience (though that also remains vitally important).
And when it comes to baby boomers, Lancksweert believes there’s been a change in outlook when it comes to health care. “There’s long been a kind of sentiment of, you just got to tough it out–just accept and be good and be part of the process and you’ll get out the other end,” she says. “Whereas the baby boomers have created so much, and they are incredibly internet savvy and they are world citizens. Thanks to the internet and new technology, they know to look up their own conditions, to hunt down the very best physicians, to look into the patient experience record of their chosen hospital. They are more proactive.”
In the future, Lancksweert hopes to make a broader range of clothing for adults, including more patterns and colors, and offer clothes that are specifically for teenagers, children, and babies as well. She also hopes to participate in the emerging field of health tracking technology. Currently, a pair of trousers in R&D include an accelerometer that would inform a caregiver or nurse if the person has fallen while wearing them, and a locator device to let the caregiver know where exactly the person is.
Ultimately, Lancksweert believes that Inga Wellbeing’s designs will uplift the people who wear them, aiding in their recovery by giving them more dignity, independence, and confidence. Why shouldn’t your clothes help you heal?