‘Fidget’ quilts engage patients with dementia

Young Scarlett Harris looks over the designs and patterns at the fidget quilt show-and-tell at St. Ann Church in Prairie Village. Fidget quilts are small in size and are designed to provide sensory feedback for individuals suffering from dementia. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MIKE MCCABE

by Susan Fotovich McCabe

PRAIRIE VILLAGE — It wasn’t too long ago that fidget spinners were all the rage for school-aged kids. But at St. Ann Church here, there’s another kind of fidget product of more lasting interest — the fidget quilt.

Fidget quilts are actually small in size and are designed to provide sensory feedback for individuals suffering from dementia. Each fidget quilt is handcrafted by a talented group of women at St. Ann’s and is filled with a variety of items that make fidgeting fun.

The group’s newest inventory features quilts with objects like plastic measuring spoons, keys, silk and textured ribbons and fabrics, plastic toys, buttons and more. Jo Ann Palmer, a Kansas City transplant and an eight-year member of St. Ann’s is one of the group’s five original organizers.

“We saw an ad from a local senior living center about making fidget quilts, so a group of us met with the facility and began making our first batch,” Palmer said. “Fidget quilts are a relatively new idea, although Pinterest is full of images and ‘chatter’ about them.”

According to Leawood-based American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), dementia is not a disease, but rather a group of symptoms that often occurs in older people.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. The condition makes it hard for people to remember, learn and communicate. It may cause changes in mood and personality. Fidgeting is a common behavior among individuals diagnosed with dementia.

The project was a perfect fit for Palmer, who moved from California and volunteered around her work schedule as an administrative assistant for a hospital. Also, it gave her a chance to return to her hobby of sewing.

When her husband passed away and she traveled to Kansas City to visit her son and daughter-in-law, she fell in love with the area and now enjoys the camaraderie of the dozen or so women who meet monthly to plan the fidget quilts.

“It was a God thing,” Palmer said of her move. “This is why I’m supposed to be here.”

The group began meeting in June and has donated approximately 30 fidget quilts to area senior living residences. The price of fidget quilts online generally starts at $40 apiece.

Although the meetings help keep them organized, most of the volunteers’ work is done at home. All of the women have sewing experience, as well as yards and yards of fabric and accessories they are always happy to contribute.

What they don’t have, they receive in donations, the need for which is spread by word of mouth.

While not every fidget quilt features a theme, some women choose to incorporate one.

St. Ann parishioner Rosemary Ahnen knew one dementia patient who used to fidget with a tissue. The woman would make the same motion over and over again, pushing the tissue back and forth.

Ahnen finally realized the woman was “sewing.” In honor of the woman, Ahnen made a special fidget quilt that featured zippers, spools of thread, and soft material. She used her embroidery machine to give it even more texture.

Texture is important when designing a good fidget quilt, Palmer said. It has to be the right mix of sensory objects. However, it must also be washable and safe so seniors cannot injure themselves.

“People who have dementia want a sensory-type item that soothes them. They’ll fidget with whatever they have,” Palmer said.

Fellow quilter Nancy Nowatzke’s mom passed away after battling dementia. Her brother is currently battling a form of dementia in a local senior living center. She has watched him undergo many changes and believes the fidget quilt will help him as his dementia progresses.

While the group’s mission is to serve individuals diagnosed with dementia, the women also gather twice a year to serve a much younger audience. That’s when the women make baby blankets for those in need.

Carrying on the group’s mission for all ages will continue to take resources. And while Palmer said she has enough fabric and scraps at her apartment to fill a third bedroom, she encourages donations of all kinds.

It makes the quilts fun and interesting, she said, and provides a much-needed activity for a population of seniors dealing with the effects of dementia.

For more information on the fidget quilt project, contact Jo Ann Palmer by email at: joannpalmer0@gmail.com.

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