When Sarah Hammet used to visit her elderly, infirm father in hospitals and nursing homes in Kentucky in the early 1980s, she was struck by the drab, almost careless way in which the patients were dressed.

Hammet therefore took special notice when, visiting another relative in a Bethesda nursing home four years ago, she saw an old woman shuffling down the hall with her bathrobe on backward, day after day after day.

"I kept thinking, 'There's a reason for that,' but I wasn't sure why," says Hammet, who is now 60. "And then I realized that it was the most pain-free way to put the robe on. It wasn't an oversight, it was a kindness."

That insight propelled Hammet into the world of adaptive clothing -- dresses and separates designed specifically for senior citizens with restricted mobility and dexterity.

Working out of the basement of her home in Rock Creek Park, Hammet sells clothes at nearly 50 nursing homes and retirement communities throughout the District, Maryland and Delaware.

Four days a week every fall and every spring, she and an assistant load a half-dozen racks of clothes into the back of a van and hit the road, holding fashion shows and offering individual consultations at every facility they visit.

Last year the company, called Feeling Special Fashions Inc., posted revenues of about $60,000. This year projected sales are $80,000, Hammet says, enough to make the company profitable for the first time.

"Our aging population has got a lot of discretionary income, and they are the ones who are pushing this market," says Jan Galvin, director of rehabilitation engineering at the National Rehabilitation Hospital and an informal consultant to Hammet.

"As you get older, looking nice and feeling good is all part of trying to keep the aging process under control," Galvin says. "If you can get into your clothes, then you can still make an effort to feel good."

Hammet's dresses and separates, which are all manufactured by Comfort Clothing Inc. of Kingston, Ontario, are stylishly designed and come in various colors and prints.

The armholes are a bit bigger than usual; modest necklines and long sleeves are the norm. Decorative buttons often hide simple Velcro fastenings; waists are uncinched and come with optional belts. These clothes can be stepped into, rather than pulled on over-the-head. And, perhaps most important, they are washable and cost between $40 and $60.

"For me to take my aunt out {shopping} would be a hardship for both of us," says Jane Greenstein, whose aunt Ruth Tiefenbrun, 86, is a resident at Chevy Chase House in Northwest Washington and one of Hammet's best customers.

"Sarah just knows Ruthie and she brings stuff to Ruthie that she knows is going to fit," Greenstein says.

Comfort Clothing manufactures two distinct lines: front-opening, easy-to-fasten garments for more mobile seniors, and simple dresses that close around the neck but stay open in back for people in wheelchairs.

A handful of U.S. companies make garments similar to those by Comfort Clothing, Galvin says, but most retailers ignore the special needs of elderly shoppers. JCPenney and Sears are the only major retailers with lines targeted toward senior citizens.

And despite the increasing numbers of older Americans who have neither the stamina nor the transportation to get out to stores, there are few traveling road shows that bring the merchandise into the homes of potential customers.

Hammet says her only counterpart in this region is Muriel Wangler, 64, founder of Muriel's Comfort Clothing Inc. in Kernersville, N.C.

Wangler, who sells adaptive clothing in Virginia and North Carolina, set up shop in 1982 as the first U.S. distributor for Comfort Clothing.

She has expanded from her own basement to a nearby warehouse, which is open to shoppers twice weekly, and she travels to nursing homes and retirement communities several days a week from March to June and from September to November. Annual sales total about $85,000.

"Usually we have a fashion show for the first visit" to a new facility, Wangler says. "After that, they're just too anxious to get to the clothes."

Like Hammet, Wangler turned to the adaptive clothing market for personal reasons: Her mother was paralyzed by a stroke in 1982.

"My mother was always such a proud woman and always took such good care of herself," says Wangler. "To see her sitting with her clothes on backward seemed so degrading to me."

At first, Wangler could not find attractive dresses or robes that were open down the back and would be easy to slip over her mother's arms while she sat in her wheelchair.

But when she read a Comfort Clothing advertisement featuring a back-opening garment several months later, she says, "I saw immediately it was exactly what I was looking for."

Eleanor Rush, president and founder of 13-year-old Comfort Clothing, says this personal tie to the adaptive clothing market is not uncommon.

Many distributors of Comfort Clothing, like Hammet and Wrangler, were once responsible for elderly relatives, she says, and others turned to retail after working as geriatric nurses or in retirement homes.

Rush herself was drawn to the industry by memories of her work in nursing homes as a girl.

"As people age, they assume a different shape," says Rush. Women's spines shorten, their bust lines drop and their shoulders slope. "All of these have different implications for design, not just functionally but {with regard to} appearance."

In addition, older women often have less strength and more precarious balance, Rush says, and therefore need to put on garments differently.

"Everybody likes clothes that are easy to get on and off," Rush says. "The ease with which closures can be reached and manipulated is crucially important."

But those involved in the adaptive clothing industry agree that the practicality of these garments is only half the story. Finding clothes designed specifically for older women, rather than making do with fashions created for 30-, 40- and 50-somethings, they say, can be a positive psychological and emotional boost for seniors.

"It's very frustrating to go out around stores and not find anything that you can put on," says Galvin. "You see a lot of elderly people who go around in dressing gowns and house coats because its easy," but they are still fashion-conscious.

The most common question at every fashion show, Wangler says, is 'do you have petite sizes?' And the customers are delighted to find that petites designed by Comfort Clothing are made not for a trim, 5-foot-tall aerobics instructor, but for a great-grandmother whose spine has shortened and who has developed osteoporosis.

"The dresses are dresses that our seniors can't find in the regular Lord & Taylor market," says Becky Fitchett, marketing director at the Chevy Chase House. "Who wants to struggle with 300 buttons?"

And Hammet, who has received dozens of thank-you notes from customers and their families, says both men and women at the homes she visits appreciate her fashion shows and traveling boutiques because they add a touch of festivity to a sometimes mundane lifestyle.

"They love the idea that they can shop right there, and it's comfortable," Hammet says.

She and Wangler, both grandmothers, agree that the growth of their businesses has been at times overwhelming.

They say they will stay with it as long as they can load and unload the racks of clothing from the vans, but both also speak longingly of turning over the driver's seat to someone a bit younger.

"To be honest, I didn't plan to work this hard," Hammet says. "I thought it would be a nice, part-time thing, but it's taken over my life. I'm learning to live on just six hours of sleep."

For more information: Feeling Special Fashions, 202-686-5041; Muriel's Comfort Clothing Inc., 1120 Foxfire Dr., Kernersville, N.C. 27284, 919-993-8565; Comfort Clothing Inc., 21 Harvey St., Kingston, Ontario K7K5C1, 613-546-5224.