What Is A Busy Blanket–And How Do They Help Dementia Patients?


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Dementia can be a debilitating and frustrating syndrome that affects the elderly and wrecks havoc on their family’s lives. One of the main symptoms is restless hands and agitation left unchecked, which can damage themselves. But what is a busy blanket, and how can it help Dementia patients?

Busy blankets are made especially for restless hands and those who are agitated. They have different items, such as buttons or pockets, sewn on the blanket to keep restless hands busy. Dementia patients respond well to these blankets because it keeps their minds and hands busy.

Do you know of anyone with dementia or other disabilities? Read on to see how busy blankets can help them stay calm.

What Are the Symptoms of Dementia?

Dementia patients have a range of symptoms that can be confusing and distressing to them and their families. Symptoms can include but are not limited to, agitation, restlessness, confusion, aggression, and delusions. Before you learn more about the busy blanket, learning the symptoms of dementia will help you understand why it will help dementia patients. 

They Have Agitation

People who are in the later stages of dementia or Alzheimers often experience agitation because they tend to forget how to do routine things like bathing or cooking. Agitation usually causes fidgeting or distress, especially if the cause is something that they cannot fix themselves, such as pain or hunger.

Caregivers can help relieve much of this agitation by simply ascertaining what the issues might be. For example, the person may have pain in their joints because of the weather, or they may be hungry or have some other need that should be met. Meeting the patient’s needs can help to relieve some agitation.

However, because of the agitation, they will wring their hands, pull at their clothing, tap, or fidget their hands. A busy blanket can take their agitation down to a manageable level while receiving their appropriate level of care. 

They Get Restless and Confused

Because of how the brain changes when a person has dementia, typically manageable activities can become progressively confusing and frustrating. 

For example, if they usually eat a meal at 5 PM but haven’t done so at ten minutes past 5 o’clock, they could become restless because they know that something is missing.

It might not help that they were repeatedly told that dinner would be late because their brain is not functioning correctly.

When caregivers are patient and attentive, they will learn what makes their patients confused and restless and know what to do to alleviate their confusion. Even so, they won’t be able to address all of the restlessness, so a busy blanket will keep their hands busy as they calm down.

A busy blanket can also help a person become less confused due to the concentration it might bring. Say someone is confused about mealtime. If they concentrate on their blanket, it could calm their brains enough to remember why a meal is late. 

They Can Sometimes Be Aggressive

Those with dementia can turn aggressive if they don’t understand what is happening, if they are in pain, or cannot communicate their needs. Caregivers can handle this by addressing the patient’s concerns and needs as soon as possible.

However, if they cannot be addressed immediately, the patient can keep their hands busy with the blanket and simultaneously calm their emotions.

Hallucinations and Delusions Often Plague Dementia Patients

Hospitals have set up villages for dementia patients in other countries that include tiny houses, a post office, grocery store, library, pharmacy, and doctor’s office for them to live in. These villages are enclosed to stay safe and don’t wander off outside of the villages’ confines. 

Countries have set this up because of how dementia patients, in later stages, have increased delusions and hallucinations. Patients will think they are still in their homes that they occupied 20 years prior and will go to a place that no longer exists. Or they might think they see something in the road that’s not there and will try to get it, potentially getting hurt.

Having a hallucination can be stressful, which might make them agitated. A busy blanket can also work with this type of scenario, as it may keep them grounded in reality. 

Why Do Dementia Patients Need a Busy Blanket?

Sensory therapy works on the concept that touch-based activities calm the mind by keeping the hands busy. When dementia enters the later stages, the brain does not work like it previously did to stay calm. If they don’t have something to keep their hands busy, they will start pulling on their clothing or scratch at themselves.

As you can see, dementia patients would benefit from a busy blanket. But let’s delve into this deeper so you can understand the need for a busy blanket for dementia patients.

A busy blanket keeps hands busy while sitting and relaxing. Some people don’t sit still, even without dementia, and need to keep their hands busy while watching a movie or visiting. When someone has dementia, the brain no longer can calm itself or think of things to do to keep from being restless.

They need an outlet for their restlessness and aggression, and fidget blankets, as they are sometimes called, give them things to do. 

One Woman’s Story

Anne Marie Rowe started the “Fidget Quit for Dementia Project” because her mom developed dementia. Though her mom always carried small things in her purse to fidget with should the need arise, she wouldn’t ever be able to carry the purse around the house or other places. The fidget blanket came about as a need for something that can take up residence on the couch, bed, or lounge chair. 

Other Fidget Items Can Work

Busy blankets are not the only thing that can work for dementia patients.

  • Activity aprons that have shoelaces, zippers, buttons, and buckles can also work to keep hands busy. Pockets on the apron can hold fidget items that are not attached, or cannot be secured, to the apron. 
  • Stuffed animals can have things like shoelaces, buckles, and buttons attached to them. 
  • Fidget items can be attached to throw pillows that patients can put in their laps instead of busy blankets.
  • Small purses can contain items inside and on the outside with which to fidget and calm their minds. 

Busy Blanket Designs

Busy blankets are made with buttons, velcro, and clip buckles to keep a dementia patient from getting restless or agitated, either hand-made or store-bought.

The main difference between a busy blanket for seniors versus sensory blankets is that sensory blankets are made specifically for children and have children’s toys attached to the blankets. Should a senior get one of these blankets, they might not appreciate it all too well.

Blankets can be modified from regular blankets. Pockets, buttons, clip buckles, and zippers can be sewn on to existing blankets should you need one. Otherwise, they are available online from various retailers and big-name marketplaces. 

There can be many themes, such as the military for veterans, or cats for cat lovers. A military veteran’s busy blanket would have things like medals and dog tags attached to the blanket. The blanket may also have pictures of war moments, army pictures, and military colors are sewn on to give it a military feel.

Cat lovers will appreciate a busy blanket with cat pictures and small balls of yarn attached to it. It may also have a small stuffed cat sewn on for the person to “pet” as they would a real cat. Similar pet lover blankets might focus on dogs, hamsters, or horses. 

There are other themes that you could use when making a busy blanket:

  • Naval Theme: You could use Navy colors throughout the blanket and add ship-themed items like anchors, uniform buckles, or tassels. 
  • Outdoor Theme: Using a bright background, you could add 3-D flowers, trees, and even fluffy clouds to the blanket. Small stuffed animals can be sewn on to add to the outdoor theme.
  • Knitting Theme: If someone is crafty with a pair of knitting needles, you can create a knitting theme blanket, complete with a small ball of yarn where two free-flowing strings come out, which can be braided. You can also attach plastic knitting needles if you desire. 

Whatever the dementia patient loves (or loved) in life, either before or after dementia, would be appropriate for their busy blanket. If they were a lawyer in their earlier life, attach a scroll of sorts to the blanket that can open and close. Or, if they were a teacher, attaching a small book that can flip open and closed might be a helpful gesture.

Suppose the busy blanket is relevant to the patient with the later stages of dementia. In that case, it might also stimulate their memories and brain waves to keep them present and aware of reality.

How Do You Make a Busy Blanket?

Making a busy blanket is simple enough if you have some sewing skills. Even if you don’t know how to make a full blanket, you can add items to an already sewn blanket, as mentioned above. 

The blanket must be the correct size to fit on a lap, rather than on a bed, because it is usually used on a lap while the patient is sitting–either in a wheelchair or a regular lounge chair. A busy blanket is not appropriate as a bed blanket. 

Start the Project With an Existing Blanket or Towel

An existing lap blanket will provide a simple beginning to your busy blanket without making the blanket from scratch. Fold it in half and secure with safety pins. The reason to do this is to have a limited area to sew every item on, which keeps everything in reach for the patient later.

Prepare Your Objects

Pockets and zippers are two elements that often go on a busy blanket. If you plan on putting a pocket on the blanket, and you are using a pocket from an old pair of jeans, cut the pocket from the jeans and sew around the cut edges to keep it from fraying later. 

Again, if you’re using a zipper from an old garment, cut it out of the garment and remove any extraneous materials before sewing it on the blanket. 

Gather Other Objects

Take this time to gather other items that have a personal significance to the patient. Perhaps it is a unique locket handed down through several generations. Or maybe it is a unique tool that they used in the past. Look for things that generate memories as well as keep their hands busy. But make sure they can be washed, as the blanket may need to be cleaned eventually.

Sew on the Many Elements

Assuming you know how to hand-sew, let’s get started. Choose places where you want to put your objects and pin them in place. You want to plan the objects’ placement before you sew them on because if it doesn’t work within the space you have, you can easily reset them. 

For things that can’t be sewed onto the blanket, they are solid, create a loop from some scraps of fabric, and sew part of the loop on the blanket. If possible, thread the loop through the object, then sew the other part of the loop to the blanket. 

Remember, the blanket is folded over, so be sure to sew through the first layer only, or you risk making the blanket smaller than it should be.

Unfold the Blanket and Test It

Once you have all the busy blanket elements sewn in place, clip any extra threads, and take all the safety pins out. Unfold the blanket and lay it out on a flat surface. Tug on the objects to see if they are secure. If something is loose, and it shouldn’t be, secure it with a needle and thread. 

Be sure that the zippers work and will not get caught on any thread or fabric. If you put buttons with buttonholes on the blanket, make sure they work correctly by buttoning and unbuttoning them.

Anything that doesn’t work may have the opposite effect on the dementia person and cause agitation. 

How Do You Make a Blanket From Scratch?

What if you don’t have any existing lap blankets to make a busy blanket with? If your sewing skills are limited to hand sewing, you might try getting a square of fleece material from the store, then cut strips about 1 inch wide and 2 inches deep into the fleece material. Start at one corner, tie two strips together in a knot, to prevent the blanket from fraying later. Continue with the steps above to finish the blanket.

However, if you have decent sewing skills, you might decide to make a quilt that will provide warmth when the weather is cold. A patchwork quilt of items that hold special memories for them might give a nice touch to the rest of the objects on the quilt. If you have a printer with fabric capabilities, you could print a favorite picture to sew into the blanket.

Can Busy Blankets Work for Others With Disabilities?

People who are naturally restless or get agitated quickly, like those with Autism or other disabilities, can benefit from busy blankets. Because of the nature of some disabilities and the ages of the person receiving the blanket, you need to be cautious of what goes on a busy blanket. Small items that can be swallowed need to be absent for younger people or tightly secured to the blanket. 

Busy Blankets for People With Autism

People living with Autism can become overloaded with sensory inputs and may tap their fingers or pull at their clothes as a form of ‘stimming.’ While this attribute often gets addressed in sensory integration therapy, having a busy blanket that keeps their fingers and hands occupied can prove to be a valuable resource in between sessions. 

Busy Blankets for Other Disabilities

Other disabilities come from either congenital disabilities or traumatic brain injuries. But when the brain doesn’t work correctly, it causes the person to be easily agitated or restless. The process of making a busy blanket for someone with a brain injury is still the same. Incorporate their favorite items on the blanket to stimulate memories and brain activity.

Conclusion

Dementia patients and those with sensory disabilities often need something positive and safe to keep their hands busy, and their minds calm. While there are several reasons why someone may be restless that need to be addressed individually, when there is no apparent reason, having something to fidget with should provide the calm they seek. 

Make sure that if you buy a busy blanket, that it’s age-appropriate for the person. You don’t want to offend the person by getting something made for children or vice versa. Children’s sensory blankets have more child-like toys or objects, so it’s best to avoid these when buying a blanket for an older patient.

Best Activity Pillows For Dementia And Alzheimer’s Patients 

References

Team SafeSleep

Hi! We're a team of scientists, doctors, teachers, and coaches experienced in helping people with special needs. We hope you like our research and share it with others who might find it helpful too :)

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