Five years ago, the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba launched the Touch Quilt initiative, inspired by an Ontario-based project giving quilts to long-term care residents with dementia. Today, thousands of quilts have been distributed to facilities across Manitoba.

Norma Kirkby works on the Touch Quilt program with the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba. “When the project was suggested to us, we saw an opportunity to connect with the community. Since its inception, many volunteers have gotten involved, including knitting circles, individuals and schools.”

The program began with the aim of addressing the isolation of seniors in long-term care facilities. “If the residents don’t have any family, they may not receive any visitors or gifts. It’s very sad. We thought we would give each resident a quilt, to be as inclusive as possible. It’s a way of bringing the community together and paying tribute to this group of people living with dementia.”

The quilts are made with an assortment of fabric squares sewn together by volunteers. “Touch quilts should have a variety of textures and fabrics. When the seniors touch and rub the material, it can bring back memories. I recall one resident who, when we gave him his quilt, was particularly fascinated by one fabric square. When we spoke to his family, we learned that he had been a tailor and remembered the fabric he used to work with.”

Colours can also help residents relive certain moments. “A colour can suggest a specific kind of clothing, such as a graduation dress, a wedding gown or baby clothes. Furry or soft fabrics can evoke an infant’s hair, outer garments or fishing. It can bring memories to the surface, providing an opportunity to dialogue with the resident.”

Volunteers can be involved in any part of the quilt-making process. “Some cut the fabric squares, while others get together to sew. Some people make quilts on their own, from start to finish. Once the fabric has been selected and cut, it takes around four hours to assemble each quilt.”

In St. Malo, a group of women quilters meets regularly for this purpose. “The group made more than 2,000 quilts that were distributed across southeastern Manitoba. They continue to gather and are now sending their work to Winnipeg. Last year, they assembled 800 to 900 quilts. What makes their quilts unique is that they decorate them, adding embroidery, buttons and zippers… They include a range of unique interest squares that provide sensory stimulation to the seniors.

All of the quilts are given to the residents. “The time involved in making the quilts is a gift from the community. We use fabric scraps, and the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba purchases the labels and additional material. We have distributed quilts to most of the rural long-term care homes. It takes us longer to reach everyone in the city.”

This year, the project distributed quilts to the Actionmarguerite facilities. “Eighteen months ago, we gave quilts to every resident at Actionmarguerite St. Joseph. More recently, we sent 100 quilts to Actionmarguerite St. Vital, and 175 to Actionmarguerite St. Boniface. Our goal is simply to do something nice and show our respect to long-term care residents.”