Calming, quirky quilts for Alzheimers patients

Guidelines for quilt makers


Touch quilts provide calming, comfort and stimulation for people with mid- to late-stage Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, and are also used with developmentally challenged people and autistic children. They are small quilts -- 30 to 36 inches square -- that appeal especially to the sense of touch by having many textures and possibly something to pull, a pocket, or a row of gimp.



An easy and versatile design is a quilt of sixteen 8-inch squares (cut 8.5") arranged in four rows of four. Sixteen squares allow for a good variation in textures and 8" provides enough space for interesting toys and other embellishments. For example, a jeans back pocket fits neatly in 8", as does an 18 cm zipper. The twelve outside squares may also be used to frame a 16" central block -- a log cabin, crazy quilt or an irregular patchwork using, perhaps, small pieces of fabric from a sample book.


Other designs that work well are 36 six-inch squares (6 rows of 6), 25 seven-inch squares (5 rows of 5) or a crazy quilt of nine 11" or 12" squares, all quilts made with richly textured fabrics. Two drawbacks of the wholecloth quilts that one sometimes sees are that the range of textures is limited and that embellishments are tacked onto the surface, not secured out of reach behind seams.


Fabrics: A variety of textures is the most important characteristic for these quilts. When choosing your fabric, close your eyes and run your fingers over the fabric: does it have a good feel? does it feel different from your other fabrics? Almost anything is acceptable: fake fur, velvet and velveteen, terry towels (especially if ribbed or sculpted), textured upholstery fabrics, satin and sateen, corduroy, seersucker, etc, etc. You can also use regular quilting fabrics and add texture with chenille, tucks, smocking, ruffles, piping, stippling or other quilting , etc.


Not acceptable are fibreglass (most often used in curtain material), leather and real fur, or anything flimsy. Flocking may come off in washing, but if it doesn't it is okay. Watch out for fine wires along the edges of ribbons and remove before pre-washing.


Pre-wash all fabrics in hot water and machine dry on high. Quilts will be laundered that way in use.


Colour: Alzheimer patients tend to see black as a hole. Use black sparingly with this in mind. All other colours are acceptable. Alzheimer patients vary in likes and dislikes just like everyone else. Bright, strong colours in combinations you like work best. If donating to an institution, it may have some restrictions (for example, a local nursing home indicates no-go areas with yellow).


Embellishments are often fabric (which must be pre-washed) including lace, rickrack, gimp, ruffles, prairie points (can also be dinosaur or dragon spines), yo-yo's (as flowers or eyes), and suchlike. They may also be such things as a plastic or metal zipper (spiral ones break) closing a pocket or just sewn on the top, a pocket with velcro closing the flap, a loop of ribbon or elastic whose ends are embedded behind a seam and sewn well to the seam allowance where stitching is out of reach. Do not over embellish: interesting textures are more important and a few things to pull at are as good as a dozen. Add a length of ribbon to the tab of a zipper or velcro closure to help arthritic fingers get a good grasp.


It is with attachments that quilters most often come to grief. Patients will twist or pull attachments for hours, all day sometimes, and they may treat any beads or buttons that come loose as candy to be eaten. All attachments must be securely fastened to the quilt in a way that cannot be twisted, pulled, picked or bitten off. Alzheimer's patients will untie knots at the end of strings; they will pick at top stitching to pull off ribbon holding a bead; they will twist any button until the threads break. I recommend that no beads or buttons (hard things) be used on these quits. If you must have a bead, put it under strong (washing bag) net, or on a shoelace or one centimetre (or more) wide grosgrain ribbon and sew both ends into a seam and then sew them to the seam allowance with at least 6 rows of stitching. Never use glass beads and use metal ones with caution, watching for sharp corners or edges. Plastic, acrylic or wooden beads are best. If painted make sure that beads are safe to suck (beads designed for very young children). Note also that putting two ribbons to hold a bead does NOT increase the strength of attachment: they simply break one at a time.


The quilt cannot have anything that is heavy or sharp attached to it. Losing your memory is very frustrating, and patients sometimes throw or hit out with their quilts. Keep dangles short, less than 4".



A middle layer is optional. If you prefer to make a warmer quilt with a middle layer use lightweight polyester batting or flannelette, as the quilts will need frequent washing. The back is regular quilt backing or, if not using a middle, perhaps a somewhat heavier fabric.


Some institutions want straps for attaching to a wheelchair. To make, take 2 pieces of quilting material each 4" by 12". Fold the long way right sides out, then fold again hiding the raw edges in the first fold. Stitch along the folds and add two or three more rows of stitching for strength.


Touch quilts are usually bagged rather than bound as bagging requires no hand stitching. Lay out the middle layer if using one, lay the back right side up on top of it. Fold the straps (if any) and pin so that their raw ends extend a bit beyond the edge of the back about two inches from the corners on the top edge. Lay the top right side down, centre, pin and sew three-eighths of an inch from the edge of the top, leaving about 8" open for turning. Secure straps with extra stitching. Trim corners. Turn right side out.



Quilt in the ditch along all horizontal and vertical seams, doing the center seams first. Then sew around the quilt about a quarter of an inch from the edge. If necessary close the opening by whipstitching. Quilt each of the blocks. Quilting that emphasizes the ridges or pattern of the fabric will strengthen the textured feel; however hearts, stars or even X's will do. Do not skimp on your quilting.



Copyright 2012 © Grace MacNab