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Hantsport women team up to create fidget quilts for people with dementia

Beth McBrine frequently visits her father, John Morse, at the R.E.A.L. Residence in Windsor. Morse, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia, enjoys having a fidget quilt on his lap and uses the small zipper compartment to store candies and the pocket to tuck away a special key.
Beth McBrine frequently visits her father, John Morse, at the R.E.A.L. Residence in Windsor. Morse, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia, enjoys having a fidget quilt on his lap and uses the small zipper compartment to store candies and the pocket to tuck away a special key. - Carole Morris-Underhill

A gift 'from the heart'

Cathy Dunbar and Beth McBrine often finish each others' sentences, interjecting with stories and jokes.

The lifelong friends grew up on Maple Street in Hantsport and, although distance separated them for a few decades, they easily picked up where they left off when they reconnected about 15 years ago.

Now, the pair spends Tuesdays and Fridays working together on a project that betters the lives of people living with dementia. The duo create fidget quilts.

These brightly-coloured quilts, which feature bobbles, zippers and various sensory and tactile experiences, have been popping up in homes and in continuing care residences across Hants County and the Annapolis Valley since the start of 2018.

Lifelong friends Beth McBrine and Cathy Dunbar began sewing together earlier this year in an effort to bring some comfort to people who have dementia. The pair get together twice a week to create fidget quilts. These are then donated to people who could use such a quilt.
Lifelong friends Beth McBrine and Cathy Dunbar began sewing together earlier this year in an effort to bring some comfort to people who have dementia. The pair get together twice a week to create fidget quilts. These are then donated to people who could use such a quilt.

“Some people volunteer at the Elms and read to people. Some people volunteer at Dykeland and do puzzles. This is what we do. There's all different types of volunteerism,” said McBrine.

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Dunbar first discovered a pattern for fidget quilts near the end of January 2018.

“It was a pure fluke,” said Dunbar, indicating she saw the item while searching the Internet for something unrelated and was drawn to clicking on it.

“I've sewn all my life, so I had all of this extra material and thought I could use all those ends. I have experience in long-term care and knew that they could be used,” said Dunbar.

During an evening playing cards with McBrine, Dunbar showed her a fidget quilt and McBrine immediately wanted to get involved.

“I said, 'I think my dad could use one of those,' so she said, 'come on over and we will get started on one.' Before the morning was over, we had three made,” recalled McBrine.

They've since donated about 60 four-by-five foot fidget quilts plus several smaller two-by-two foot quilts, and they're on a mission to get one into the hands of everyone who could benefit from using them.

“We want everyone who needs one to have one of their own,” said McBrine.

Making a difference

McBrine noticed the difference the quilt made for her father, John Morse, who lives at the R.E.A.L. Residence in Windsor. Morse, who worked alongside Dunbar's late father, Len McCully, at Minas Basin, has vascular dementia.

“My dad was always a great one for reading the paper. He had the daily paper, the Hants Journal, the Berwick Register, the Kentville Advertiser, the Globe and Mail — he read every day,” said McBrine.

And as dementia began to progress, his hands would become black with ink because he would be constantly taking the newspapers apart and then putting them back together and folding them up, McBrine said.

Cathy Dunbar, who sewed for a living, makes short work of stitching a zipper onto a quilt square.
Cathy Dunbar, who sewed for a living, makes short work of stitching a zipper onto a quilt square.

“He also developed a neurological scratching and this has stopped that as well — along with medications and stuff. It's taken his focus off of it.”

The quilts help people refocus their attention.

“They're called fidget quilts, and immediately when in your hand, you will fidget. What we're doing is, the person is already fidgetting so we're giving them something to fidget with,” explained Dunbar.

Dunbar said it's been rewarding seeing the fidget quilts in the hands of those who need them. After spending seven years with her mother in various long-term care facilities, Dunbar said she knew there were residents who could benefit from such a gift.

Gift that keeps on giving

Margaret Coghill, the program director at the Wolfville Nursing Home, said fidget quilts can serve as a soothing activity for those with busy hands.

The nursing home recently received several fidget quilts from Dunbar and McBrine. Since every quilt is unique, employees of the care facility are allowing the residents to select the ones that they are drawn to. Each quilt will be theirs to keep.

“They're very similar, but they're also very distinct, whether that's the colour or what's on it,” said Coghill.

“They all have Velcro and buttons, but they're individual, so different people are going to benefit from different things and there are different needs that the residents have that will be met.”

She said the nursing home will also keep a quilt on the table in one of the lounge areas that everyone can access. At the end of each day, the quilt will be laundered so it stays clean.

Coghill says it's not just dementia patients benefit from the fidget quilts. People who used their hands a lot — whether for work or leisure — or those who have anxiety might find them beneficial.

Each item on a fidget quilt has been meticulously sewn together and carefully examined before it goes out the door.
Each item on a fidget quilt has been meticulously sewn together and carefully examined before it goes out the door.

“These are mostly women who have knitted in the past and done crochet work. Now their hands are idle... These are things that continue to keep their fingers busy and exercise them,” said Coghill, adding the fidget quilts help keep fingers nimble.

“I think it's a soothing activity for them. It's something you can do when you're not thinking about doing it. Sort of like when they were knitting and watching TV or at a meeting or whatever. It's very soothing to be able to have something tactile that you can manipulate and move around,” Coghill added.

“We all have things that we like to keep in our hands, whether flipping a coin or twiddling our pens.”

The fidget quilts feature sewn-in items, like Velcro and elastic, that can't be easily removed by residents.

Coghill commended Dunbar and McBrine for their initiative and said the quilt donation was appreciated.

“I'm just really grateful that these two ladies have taken the time to do this and to offer it so freely.”

Benefits abound for dementia patients

Linda Bird, the director of programs and services for the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia, said she's aware of fidget quilts, also called activity quilts, and the benefits they can have.

“As the disease symptoms progress, people's ability to communicate, to identify what is bothering them or tell people what their needs are decreases,” explained Bird.

“People could be restless, anxious, frustrated and not be able to let somebody else know and that could come out in your body movements. Redirecting somebody to something that they find comforting can help reduce some of the feelings that they may be having.”

Bird said activity quilts feature different textures, like silk and fur, which can be quite calming. They also have items that keep hands busy, like zippers and pull-strings.

The Two Fidgeteers have made close to 100 fidget quilts.
The Two Fidgeteers have made close to 100 fidget quilts.

“It's just something to focus on and calm them down.”

Bird said she's not sure how long activity quilts have been around — businesses make them, and there are other volunteers in the province who create them — but they are a wonderful gift.

“I think as a community, we all want to help, and Nova Scotia has a great history of craftsmanship so to have community women and men putting efforts into making these items that can help somebody is a lovely gift to be able to give,” said Bird.

She said it would be nice for these quilts to be available to anyone who may benefit from their use.

“Like anything, what works for you or me might not work for the next person. It'd be nice if they were available for those who use them to help calm them or who found them a help in their day-to-day,” she said.

Community support evident

Dunbar and McBrine have donated quilts to both individuals and organizations and are hoping to continue helping as many people as they can.

But, it's an expensive undertaking.

Dunbar and McBrine have been footing the bill to create the pieces. Earlier this spring, Dunbar, rather reluctantly, put a call out on Facebook for donations of fabric, buttons, zippers, lace and Velcro. She said the response has been overwhelmingly supportive, with several donations being made.

Beth McBrine and Cathy Dunbar meticulously go over the layout and design of each fidget quilt, ensuring patches with zippers, bobbles and texture are lined up in a specific manner. Each quilt piece is then sewn together multiple times and inspected before the finished product goes out the door.
Beth McBrine and Cathy Dunbar meticulously go over the layout and design of each fidget quilt, ensuring patches with zippers, bobbles and texture are lined up in a specific manner. Each quilt piece is then sewn together multiple times and inspected before the finished product goes out the door.

The hardest items to get — and ones they generally pay for — are pieces of brightly-coloured material that could work for the quilts' backing, as they need .85 metres for each one, plus the batting and the binding.

“The bigger pieces haven't come in but I'm totally overwhelmed by how positive (the response was) just by putting that out on Facebook,” said Dunbar.

McBrine and Dunbar, who call themselves The 2 Fidgeteers, are appreciative of the community support and are hoping people will continue to donate items.

They're always looking for material, elastic, Velcro, ribbon, zippers, flat lace, toggles and wide ric-rac. Financial donations will go towards purchasing batting, material and bias tape for binding the quilts.

The Lockhartville Baptist Church and the Hantsport and District Lions Club have already donated to the cause, as have a few other community members.

Each quilt is handmade — and that's just how Dunbar and McBrine like it.

“It is a pure donation from us — it's not a business. It's from the heart. There's a need there and we're trying to meet it,” said Dunbar.

“I would like to keep it as personal as I can keep it.”


By the numbers

  • 564,000 — The number of Canadians currently living with dementia
  • 16,000 — The number of Canadians under the age of 65 living with dementia
  • 937,000 — It's predicted there will be 937,000 Canadians living with dementia by 2031
  • 65% — Of those diagnosed with dementia over the age of 65 are women
  • 25,000 — The approximate number of new cases of dementia diagnosed each year
  • 56,000 — Number of Canadians with dementia that are being cared for in hospitals, even though research shows this is not an ideal location for care
  • 45% — Research shows smokers are at a greater risk of developing dementia
  • 20% — According to an online survey of 1,506 Canadians that was conducted between Nov. 9-14, 2017, one in five Canadians have experienced caring for someone living with a form of dementia. That same survey found a staggering 87 per cent of caregivers said they wished more people understood the reality of caring for someone with dementia. One in five caregivers said they sometimes feel embarrassed to be seen in public with the person they are caring for.

~ Source: Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia


Strategies for people living with dementia

There are about 17,000 Nova Scotians living with the dementia, with age being the biggest risk factor for getting the disease.

About 15 per cent of the population with dementia have a younger onset, but the majority are aged 65 years and older.

“In the early stages, people can live well independently,” said Linda Bird, the director of programs and services for the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia.

Bird said there are many tools and strategies that people with dementia, or those caring for them, can use in the run of the day.

Aside from fidget quilts, Bird said there are several strategies that can be implemented to help people with varying stages of dementia.

“I think the big thing that we need to understand is that as someone progresses through the disease, their symptoms affect the way they're able to respond to their environment, to their emotions. As family members and staff, we need to be really attuned to the person,” she said.

Bird said taking someone with dementia out for a drive or a walk, or bringing in old photographs and reminiscing, can be beneficial to their overall well-being.

But, Bird said, people need to remember that the ability to communicate also changes as the disease develops.

“The key is to think about what kinds of activities did the person like in the past, what were those interests and hobbies, and how those activities can be modified now to fit with their current abilities,” said Bird.

“For instance, somebody might have been a great baker and they can no longer follow a recipe, but, they might be able to help you with the baking. As a pair, you could bake something together. Or, they might enjoy going through picture cookbooks with recipes in them.”

Bird said people with dementia often can't initiate ideas or activities but are more than happy to participate.

“We know we all deserve and want to have meaningful activities in our day,” said Bird

“If people can't initiate that on their own, as they progress with the disease from middle to late stage, we have to help initiate them. Quite often, people are happy to participate but they would not have been able to start something.

“Anything to keep people socially engaged, physically active, mentally stimulated and a combination of all of those things are the best.”

To learn more about dementia, Bird suggests watching the '10 Symptoms and Strategies' videos on the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia's website.

For more information about Alzheimer's disease and dementia, call the InfoLine at 1-800-611-6345.


Ten warning signs of Alzheimer's Disease 

1. Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities — forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks — forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed

3. Problems with language — forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.

4. Disorientation in time and space — not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.

5. Impaired judgment — not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.

6. Problems with abstract thinking — having difficulty balancing a chequebook, for example, or not understanding what numbers are and how they are used.

7. Misplacing things — putting things in strange places, like a dress in the refrigerator or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.

8. Changes in mood and behaviour — exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.

9. Changes in personality — behaving out of character, such as becoming confused, suspicious, or fearful.

10. Loss of initiative — losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.


Contact info

To donate materials or funding, or to request a quilt, contact Cathy Dunbar at 902-670-3800 or email the2fidgeteers@gmail.com.

Did you know?

The annual Walk for Alzheimer's Make Memories Matter takes place May 6 in Halifax at 12:30 p.m. Festivities begin at 1 p.m., with an opening ceremony at 1:30 p.m. followed by the five-kilometre walk at 2 p.m. The event takes place at the Cunard Centre, 961 Marginal Rd., Halifax.

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