Knitted Twiddlemuffs: Help for Alzheimer’s Anxiety

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My maternal grandmother — perhaps the kindest, calmest, most creative soul who ever walked the earth — taught me to knit when I was very young. It’s a gift that’s kept giving over the decades, and by now, it’s a well-worn addiction. I reach for the needles first thing upon awakening and more than a few times have fallen asleep curled in my usual corner of the couch at night — eyes closed, but needles and yarn still going. If pressed, I’ll claim I knit for the meditative aspect and other health benefits this sedentary sport is said to deliver. And I admit my habit grew even more intense after a 83-year-old friend bragged she could read and knit at the same time. I taught myself that dual talent, too — as well as the art of surreptitiously knitting under the desk during Skyped business meetings.

Being a knitting addict means a prodigious output of knitted things — and only so many you can wear or give away as gifts. My unsubtle brother, as one example, has taken to requesting that all of his birthday gifts be “storebought.” I’ve turned to knitting for charity: countless scarves, hats, and mittens for the homeless — and so many knitted nests for a bird rescue organization that you could almost hear those poor birds cheeping: “Honestly, I would really prefer a storebought nest.”

And so perhaps many were relieved when I recently happened upon a knitting pattern and instructive video for something new to take on: twiddlemuffs.

How and Why They Work

Twiddlemuffs, too, are muli-taskers. They can help warm hands in need. And when adorned with embellishments such as buttons, ribbons, and loops of beads, they can provide activities and engagement for restless hands. By many accounts, twiddlemuffs were the brainchild of fiber artist Margaret Light, who fashioned a prototype a couple of decades ago for her grandmother Lily, who had also been an active and productive needleworker until she suffered severe vision loss and became restless and fidgety much of the time. “The twiddlemuff satisfied her need to keep her hands warm and busy,” Light says. An added benefit: “They reminded her how much she was loved — even when I couldn’t be with her.”

Many people, especially those in the middle through late stages of Alzheimer’s, become chronic fidgeters — pulling at their clothes or bedding, rubbing or scratching their skin, wringing their hands and twisting their fingers when they’re upset, afraid or agitated. Some posit this is especially common in people who were formerly very active with their hands at work or recreational activities.

Twiddlemuffs present a gentle, non-pharmaceutical way to keep hands and minds occupied, encouraging movement and brain stimulation and helping to ease agitation. Some caregivers report they also provide ready conversation pieces to ease interacting with others.

While acting as Alzheimer’s Coordinator for Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois, Corie Larocque, has observed residents interact with twiddlemuffs of various kinds. “We give one to any resident who begins grabbing things, fidgeting with clothes or glasses — someone who is clearly craving some tactile stimulation,” she says. “It immediately helps calm residents, directing their focus and energy on one thing. In my experience, the muff does reduce the needs for meds.”

Happy Hands at Home

A handcrafted twiddlemuff can incorporate an individual’s favorite colors. Elements can also be added to bring to mind activities that were once familiar to him or her: appliqued flowers for gardeners or buttons from a uniform for former members of the military. The best twiddlemuffs share a few common characteristics. They are soft to the touch and offer a variety of other inviting tactile elements such as stripes of fuzzy or furlike yarn and satin ribbons.

They also contain “activities” matched to the individual’s predilections and abilities, such as cords that can be tied and untied, zippers to work up and down, pockets in which to hide favorite small objects or pieces of candy or scented sachets that may also be calming, snaps or buttons to fasten and unfasten, a string of beads to move and count — abacus-style. Noisemaking elements such as Velcro and crackly material may also provide interest. If needed, tabs can also be added so a twiddlemuff can be attached to a walker, wheelchair, or bed tray. A personalized nametag can help identify the owner — and may be an especially welcome addition for those who are living in group or institutionalized settings. And finally, it may be wise to use washable yarn and other fabrics to ease laundering a well-used twiddlemuff.

The creations can be therapeutic for those who knit them, too. In addition to helping induce the aforementioned meditative effect, the project can help use up yarn left over from other projects, which knitters naughtily refer to as their “stashes.” And most knitters, who are often stereotyped as caring types, are happy to make and donate the twiddlemuffs free of charge — so producing them can also help fulfill the urge to be altruistic.

The idea was quick to catch on with various knitting groups based in the UK. For example, Sue Lawton has been a star producer for her local charity knitting group, Carers U-Knitted, which gathers weekly in Warrington, a large town near Liverpool. In addition to fashioning them with ribbons, buttons, and zippers, she often puts a key inside them. “Older people often like to have a key as it makes them feel secure,” Lawton says. “People with dementia tend to have routines and become agitated in hospital as they are out of their usual routine. Having a twiddlemuff distracts them and helps to sooth their anxiety.”

Individuals and groups in the U.S. have been slower to discover and embrace twiddlemuffs — though The Neighbors’ Place, a community center in Wausau, Wisconsin, has been an early adopter. Participants there have donated dozens of them to local nursing homes and hospice and memory care facilities. Eileen Guthrie, one of the center’s volunteers, divulges how they ginned up enthusiasm for the project: “We began knitting in public; on the bus, at meetings, in the library, just about anywhere you can take a small project,” she says.

The Storebought Versions

Like so many other good ideas these days, twiddlemuffs have been “monetized’ — mass-produced by a few companies and offered for sale as Twiddle®Muffs and Twiddles©, among other monikers.

The Alzheimer’s Association, the organization lauded to be in the know about all things Alzheimer’s, offers versions made to resemble cats and dogs with embroidered faces, as well as a ”sport version” in plaid at its online store for $49.99 each. The group’s site also includes a short video about how to use one.

Included on the site are several five-out-of-five-starred comments from consumers that best tell the tale of whether the things are used and loved. Among them:

  • “My mom was recently admitted to a nursing home and has dementia. Her hands are always moving. I gave her this muff and she moves around to each different item on the muff. It does keep her hands busy and it seems to relax her.”
  • “Our 90-year-old Aunt loved her new bedmate. She especially loved wagging the tail. As she has been unable to knit or crochet or needlepoint for some time, to see her tying bows with the ribbon brought tears to the eyes. She seemed comforted putting her hands inside the muff. Whether she uses it for five minutes, keeps it in bed with her, or tosses it across the room, we are so happy we gave it a try! The trick, I think, is to let her play freely as she wishes. She even handed it to her 90-year-old husband for a cuddle. This brought smiles all around.”
  • “Purchased it for my father in late stage Alzheimer’s. He loves it and we hide new things in it everyday.”

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