Touch a quilt, touch a memory
On a wintry day, there’s nothing better than staying warm and toasty under a quilt. But could there be more to a quilt’s magic? A recent study shows that ‘touch quilts’ could be a simple, effective and profoundly personal way to ease anguish and improve the quality of lives.
“Touch quilts may have the potential to make a significant difference in people’s lives. Our small study showed they could be a really simple intervention that goes a long way to improving quality of life, to reducing anguish, without the use of drugs, in the lives of our most vulnerable people.”
Colourful pieces of fabric with different textures. Big buttons. Some faux fur. A zipper or two. Scraps of lace and crocheted doilies. Heavy ribbon. From these simple items, experienced stitchers can create more than quilts that provide warmth — they can create paths to memories that help calm, relax and reconnect with people living with memory loss.
These are the preliminary findings of Dr. Sharon Moore, a Faculty of Health Disciplines Professor, and colleagues who recently completed a qualitative research project on “touch quilts” — small-sized lap quilts intentionally created to safely stimulate different sensory experiences — and their impact on the quality of life and care of people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Stitching together personal and professional interests
Moore admits her interest in touch quilts was piqued by more than professional interest. She’s a quilter herself and member of the Mountain Cabin Quilters Guild (MCQG) in Canmore, Alta.
“I’ve been a quilter for many years, and didn’t know about touch quilts until quite recently,” she explains. “After hearing about how they provided calm and comfort to people with dementia, and sometimes reduced the need for medication, I wanted to learn more. But I really couldn’t find any evidence.”
“The experience of participating in a touch quilt project” began in 2016, in close collaboration with Carol Henckel, who was then the Director of Care at a Calgary long-term-care facility, alumna Mariko Sakamoto (Master of Nursing ‘16) and Joan Loomis, Chair of the MCQG Education Committee, who was the liaison with the quilters who were instrumental in accepting the challenge to learn about and create the quilts used for the research.
Two long-term care facilities (with a total of 48 beds) took part, and the impact of touch quilts on these residents, their families and professional staff was explored. To honour the participants’ preferences and individuality, each chose their own quilt. We learned how residents reacted to touch quilts by observing their responses when presented with a quilt, family interviews and email responses, and from staff interviews and recordings in a journal.
Findings were emotional, impactful
“The quilts were well used,” Moore says. “In more than 75 journal entries from staff, there were only three instances where the quilts didn’t seem to have a positive impact. Staff noticed behavioural changes. In one poignant note, we learned about a man who hadn’t spoken for many months. He loved baseball, chose a quilt with a sports theme and shared memories.
“Families offered beautiful responses.
“One woman said her husband could never be still, but that with the quilt, he could run his hands over the quilt, sit quietly and watch an hour-long TV program with her. One woman cried when she picked up her quilt because she was so grateful and appreciative that someone would create something so beautiful for her. “One man, an artist, displayed his quilt on the wall, using it in the way in which he, as an artist, connected to it. This reinforced for us how important it was to know and understand residents — by involving their families and learning their life stories — honouring who they are as people, and ensuring they were treated with respect and dignity.”
An unexpected second aspect of the project has also emerged. During two intensive quilt-making days, Moore heard the quilters talk about their own challenges of caring for family members and the impact of mental illness and dementia.
“This added a whole new dimension to the project — the impact on the quilters themselves — which is yet to be explored,” she says.
Moore has presented her preliminary findings to several groups and conferences, and is now preparing the final manuscript to be submitted for publication, as well as beginning work on Phase II of the study