Health & Medicine

Alice’s Embrace envelops Alzheimer’s patients with a blanket of comfort

Beatrice Gonzalez enjoys the comfort of a blanket from Alice’s Embrace, a volunteer group that visited Carlton Senior Living in Davis on Sept. 14.
Beatrice Gonzalez enjoys the comfort of a blanket from Alice’s Embrace, a volunteer group that visited Carlton Senior Living in Davis on Sept. 14. rpench@sacbee.com

For Alzheimer’s patients, it’s like getting a warm embrace.

On a recent morning in Davis, about 35 seniors – all with varied degrees of dementia or Alzheimer’s – were treated to a handmade blanket or shawl from Alice’s Embrace, a nonprofit group that has delivered hundreds of them to memory care patients throughout California and other states.

At Carlton Senior Living in Davis, many of the memory-impaired residents were enthralled by the vivid array of colorful blankets, neatly folded on a table for their choosing. Some were incredulous that the blankets were free. Others were unable to communicate beyond a smile but beamed their delight.

One resident, Beatrice Gonzalez, took her time deciding. When she finally settled on a teal-blue cable-knit, she happily draped it over herself like a queenly robe.

Unlike patient treatments measured by pills or injections, the blankets can be a softer way to ease the anxiety and restlessness that often accompanies Alzheimer’s.

“Touch is one of the last senses not touched by Alzheimer’s,” said Jesse Vasquez, programming manager for memory care residents at the Carlton Senior Living complex in Davis, where the blankets were recently given away. “When they touch something soft, it brings that sense of calmness. The blankets wrap around them with a sense of security.”

For Diane Lewis, founder of Alice’s Embrace, it’s been a way to honor her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2011 after a six-year decline. Early in her mother’s diagnosis, the Elk Grove resident knitted her a sage-green blanket that became more than just a warm comforter.

“It was like a security blanket. She could put her fingers through the stitches and it eased her anxiety,” Lewis said.

Since launching Alice’s Embrace in January 2014, Lewis has given out about 1,200 handmade blankets and shawls to residents in memory care facilities in about 25 cities, primarily in Nevada and Northern California, including Sacramento, Davis, San Jose, Carmel and Reno. They’re all handmade by a network of volunteer knitters and crocheters, some from as far away as Ireland.

It’s long been known that tactile textures can ease anxiety for some Alzheimer’s patients. Known as fidget quilts, sensory blankets or “busy blankets,” they’re sold on craft sites such as Etsy and Pinterest. All are designed to keep fidgety fingers busy, and some come with contrasting fabric (i.e. corduroy, fake fur, suede) or attached objects such as buttons, pockets or zippers. Others are weighted to provide a firm presence on a lap or shoulders, based on therapy studies that show heavier blankets – up to 30 pounds – can be a quieting, self-soothing tool for patients with mental health disorders.

“Having that soft blanket that they can hold onto or touch can give them comfort,” said Michelle Johnston, spokeswoman for the Greater Sacramento chapter of the National Alzheimer’s Association.

Alice’s Embrace, which focuses strictly on knitted blankets or shawls, is noted on Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change website. It has also attracted dozens of volunteer knitters, including an Oklahoma City woman who has knitted about 120 blankets in honor of her own mother, who had Alzheimer’s.

To maintain consistency, Lewis requires that every knitted blanket be the same dimensions, either 30-by-40 or 20-by-60 inches, with the same border. Alice’s Embrace doesn’t accept yarn donations but more than 20 yarn shops in Sacramento, Sonoma, Monterey and around the Bay Area will accept finished drop-offs of donated blankets; some also offer discounts on purchased yarn. Among the participating local shops are Rumpelstiltskin in downtown Sacramento and Knitique in Elk Grove.

On her website, Lewis lets knitters choose from 26 knit or crochet patterns, each named for an anecdote tied to her mother, Alice. “Cashews,” for instance, is a nubby pattern named for her mother’s love of the nuts. While living at a local memory care facility, Lewis said her mother frequently would wander into other residents’ rooms and innocently help herself to things she liked. On one outing together, Lewis opened her mother’s purse to find it was “filled to the brim” with cashews, apparently taken from a neighbor’s room.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a dreadful disease,” Lewis states on her website. “Watching a loved one transform into a person who is just a shell of him- or herself is very sad. When I remember my mom, I try to remember all of the funny and happy times and discard the tough, hard times.”

When visiting a memory care facility, Lewis brings twice as many blankets as there are recipients, to ensure that everyone has a choice of color and pattern. Each carries a personalized label where the person’s name is inscribed. Lewis and her volunteers kneel or lean in to gently coax some connection from even the most reluctant or seemingly uncommunicative individual. Hugs are frequent. For those mobile enough to approach the Alice’s Embrace table, it’s like being treated to a shopping trip.

“Sometimes when we put them over their shoulders, it’s a comfort,” said Lewis, who was a clothing and textiles major at California State University, Sacramento. “You see it in their faces, they’re holding and cuddling their blanket. Even the men love the shawls just as much as the women.”

Gerald Anderson, 82, a retired UC Davis machinist who has memory issues, picked out a soft brown knit that was draped on his walker. “It just appealed to me,” said the soft-spoken, smiling Anderson, who was accompanied by his adult daughter.

An animated Marge Hilliard, 84, stylish with snow-white hair and drop earrings, vacillated among several shades of pink before settling on a loose-knitted shawl in pure white. “It’s a beauty. It’s a color I can wear with many outfits,” she said with a big grin.

Alice’s Embrace has no paid staff but relies on its network of knitters and volunteers who help with deliveries. This week, they’ll be bringing blankets to a memory care facility in Fair Oaks, then travel to Fresno and Santa Monica for more deliveries.

For more information, go to alicesembrace.org or email Lewis at alicesembrace@gmail.com.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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