Dear Carol: My 84-year-old aunt has always loved doing needlepoint and embroidery, though she enjoys knitting and crocheting, too. Lately, I’ve noticed that she’s getting frustrated because she can’t seem to follow the patterns or remember the next steps in her needlepoint projects. Her memory doesn’t seem to be a problem since needlework to her is automatic, but her confusion is obvious. Her doctor says that she's probably in mid-stage dementia. She’ll ask me to help when I’m with her, which I’m happy to do, but I know that it pains her to ask since she’s so much better at this than I am.
Needlework has provided her with pleasure and satisfaction for most of her life and a way to pass time during her older years. How can I help her keep up her hobbies as her disease progresses? — WG.
Dear WG: It’s gratifying to hear about the attention that you’re paying your aunt and your concern for her welfare. Having pleasurable work or a hobby that we love is wonderful for mental health as we age as well as for keeping the brain nimble. Even if people have developed dementia, maintaining these activities has been shown to slow cognitive decline.
Your letter reminded me of my mother who enjoyed crossword puzzles and had become skilled at them. I’d buy her thick books of New York Times crosswords and the crosswords were also her favorite feature in our local newspaper even after she lost interest in the news. Over time, Mom became increasingly frustrated with the puzzles and I could almost track her cognitive decline as she stopped completing them, first the more challenging puzzles in the books, and eventually even the puzzles in the local paper.
The nursing home CNAs kindly brought in “easy” puzzle books, but Mom was insulted by those and wouldn’t even try them. In the end, this was one sign of decline that we simply had to accept.
In your aunt’s case, you could try to steer her away from needlepoint by bringing her fun new yarn and less complicated knitting or crocheting patterns. I’m suggesting this because she’d likely have the same reaction to “easy” needlepoint patterns that my mom had with crosswords, but knitting and crocheting are an extension of what she enjoys and easier patterns may still be possible for a time.
You could also start a medium-skill project yourself and ask her to help you over some “rough spots.” An alternative could be to get her started on painting with watercolors because this may channel her need to create into something that she finds pleasurable without so much frustration.
Alzheimer’s programs increasingly use art therapy with great success, so you could try this at home or see if you can enroll her in a dementia art program. Adult coloring books are also popular for those who enjoy the act of creating with their hands.
I have confidence that you’ll succeed in getting her interested in something rewarding, WG.