It can be a challenge to find meaningful activities as dementia progresses. Heather Stephen learns about a south Yorkshire group that does this while also involving the wider community.
Joe Smailes may be the only man in his Barnsley knitting group but the skills taught by his mother 67 years ago have stood him in good stead over the years.
The former policeman says,
'Just after the war it was hard to get hold of most things. When I was 10 my mother taught me to sew and knit so I could make my own gloves and socks,
'Then when I joined the army I saved myself a fortune because, while everyone else had to pay for repairs when they ripped their uniform, I could mend it myself.'
Joe, who has Alzheimer's, hadn't picked up a pair of knitting needles for decades but his interest was rekindled when he heard about the Knit2gether group set up last year by Adele Lacy, Dementia Support Worker.
Since joining, Joe's wife Marie describes him as the group's 'star knitter', though she admits to helping him out if he makes a mistake.
Marie says the group has made an enormous difference to Joe, who had been depressed about his diagnosis.
'You have no idea what the group has done for Joe. It has made him feel so much better. He loves coming to the sessions – mainly because he loves women so much.
'He is quite the charmer and it takes three hours to get out the door because he's kissing everyone's hand.'
Adele runs Knit2gether on a voluntary basis so that local people with dementia can take up a purposeful activity and to enable carers to get a break.
'Through talking to people on home visits I realised that many of our service users feel as though they can't do anything anymore and I wanted to start a group that could give them a sense of achievement.
'I thought of knitting because, even when people have forgotten everything else, it is an automatic skill which never goes. People might not be able to do a lot of things but knitting is something they can still remember and it is great for the members to see a finished product and think "I did that".'
The group, which meets monthly at the Experience Barnsley Museum, started with just five members last May and now has up to 20 keen knitters clicking away in a back room of the town hall museum.
Give something back
Knit2gether has also allowed members to give something back to their community. From May to December they produced knitted squares that were crocheted together by Barnsley College fashion students to make blankets for homeless people.
The eight blankets were presented to Barnsley Churches Drop-in Project during the group's Christmas party, also attended by local nursery school children singing carols.
The group's next charity project is to knit 'twiddle muffs' for the local hospital. As well as providing warmth and comfort for people with dementia, these hand muffs are a source of mental stimulation and exercise.
Kathryn Rawling, Dementia Support Manager at Alzheimer's Society Barnsley, says a craft learnt in childhood or early adulthood is often easy for people with dementia to recall.
'If someone has dementia their short-term memory may be affected, so if they tried to learn a skill today they probably wouldn't be able to retain the information. However the memory of a skill learnt in their earlier years can remain intact.'
Adele's mum Karen Lacy, who also volunteers for Knit2gether, says,
'The group has made a real difference to people's lives. The members really enjoy the companionship and having someone to talk to, and it has meant a lot to them to be able to help local charities.'
Knit2gether meets at Experience Barnsley for free. The museum has signed up to Dementia Action Alliance Barnsley, which brings businesses, charities and others together to increase awareness, reduce stigma and provide opportunities for people with the condition to contribute to community life.
Knitters at work
While knitters work on their crafts they are entertained by music and film clips from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
'Members find it enjoyable and reminiscence is a form of stimulation and pleasure for them. They find the group therapeutic and social, and it takes them back to when they felt like they had a purpose.'
This is certainly the case for Joe who has not even allowed his eye condition, macular degeneration, deter him from pursuing his long lost hobby.
'It hasn't affected my knitting apart from making me drop a few stitches so I am not about to stop yet!
'Getting involved in this club has brought back so many happy memories, gets my brain working, gives me something to do and when I am feeling down it has helped me not to feel so sorry for myself.'
See our factsheet Staying involved and active, or call 0300 303 5933 to order.
Find out about your local dementia action alliance.