There’s experience in the hands that gently hold the quilt. There’s recognition in the eyes that follow the stitches, and nods of approval surround the table. It’s a fine quilt that’s spread out among the little group of residents sitting in the activity room at Moran Vista Senior Living – one they’ve made stitch by stitch, patch by patch, over the last couple of months.
What began as a simple activity aimed at keeping hands and minds nimble turned into a project that connected residents to each other and to the sometimes forgotten stories of their own lives and families.
It was Daphne Chrysler’s reluctant participation in a craft class at the Senior Wellness Conference last year that started the whole project.
“I was asked to do a quilting class, and I had a fit, but my boss at the time insisted I go,” Chrysler, who’s the activity director at Moran Vista, said. She didn’t finish her project at the conference, a small book with pages of felt for sewing supplies. Back at Moran Vista, Chrysler brought out the book and shared her frustration about not being able to complete it.
That’s when Margaret Smith, a Moran Vista resident, said the magic words: “Listen, dear, that doesn’t look so hard.”
And within an hour Smith and a couple of other residents had finished the project.
Chrysler told Smith’s daughter, Kay Stammerjohan, what her mom had produced, and the daughter was blown away.
“My mom used to do a lot of quilting, beautiful quilts with different designs, and I didn’t know she still had an interest in doing that,” Stammerjohan said. She embraced the opportunity to help revive her mother’s interest and within a few weeks she had put together a Moran Vista quilting club.
Residents there responded to the Wednesday quilting bee.
“I didn’t have to go and knock on doors to get people to show up for this,” Chrysler said. “If Kay couldn’t make it on a Wednesday, residents would already be here waiting; they just came on their own. This really made them feel like they still had something to offer.”
Timid crafters were welcome as well.
“I only did two squares,” said Eleanor Grippen, sporting a big smile, “and I can’t even tell which are the two I did.”
Residents with Alzheimer’s and various stages of dementia found a place in the group, too.
“They could do the simpler tasks, like sorting the squares by color and material,” Stammerjohan said.
Stammerjohan took the squares home with her every week and laid the project out on a bed to make sure no two squares with the same colors ended up next to each other.
By far the best part of the quilting club was the stories residents told, Chrysler said.
The familiar activity – as is often the case with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients – connected the residents to stories from their youth and to memories some thought were long lost.
Moran Vista already has a storytelling group that meets on a regular basis, but several of the quilters pointed out that the stories told over the quilt were different: they weren’t like obituaries.
“My mother sewed. And my grandmother and aunts quilted,” said Fannie Mae Peacock, one of the resident quilters. “This quilt will last at least 50 years. I used to make them, and I had one left when my son got divorced and I lent it to him – I never saw it again.”
Others talked about sewing for their families.
“How I learned to sew? I’m afraid I can’t remember,” said Margaret Eickemeyer, laughing. “I made clothes for my children. I remember that.”
Esther Westlund made clothes for herself.
“I’m so small I had to learn how to sew,” she said. “I loved quilting. I still love quilting. I used to make little things from the remnants I had left over. Little blankets you can always donate to the Salvation Army; they need them.”
Making something useful is key, Stammerjohan said.
“They feel like they are still functional and useful, like they have something to offer.”
“It’s been so nice getting to know people while doing something that’s not just busywork,” said Westlund.
The women can’t wait to get started on their next quilt.
“Don’t forget that underneath these wrinkles and the gray hair and the bald spots there really are people who had lives and careers,” Westlund said. “We are real people, you know.”