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138 Quilts and Aging Clare Luz and Marsha MacDowell Contrary to common wisdom, not all quilters have been quilting for a lifetime. Many start later in life, in response to an illness or difficult life event, then discover that it’s a tonic; a balm that satisfies multiple needs. MacDowell, Luz, and Donaldson 2017, 106 Quiltmaking is a form of material culture production that scholars interested in the history and meaning of traditions in the everyday lives of individuals and communities have long documented and analyzed. Many studies have explored the continuity of passing on skills and knowledge from one generation to another or the use of this art form as a means of expressing life stories and memories. Older quiltmakers are naturally apt to be the focus of such studies. Yet, the prevalence of quiltmaking among elders begs deeper inquiry. What is the connection of quiltmaking to the process of aging itself and why should we care? Exploring these questions brings us face-to-face with the complex topics of aging and mortality, and ways in which one can have the most optimal experience with both. Most of us hope to enjoy a “good old age.” For many, quiltmaking helps. People of all ages engage in quiltmaking. Some do so to deal with the aging or death of loved ones, to cope with grief or anger. They also make quilts to educate others and raise funds for research on illnesses including those more common among older adults, such as Alzheimer’s disease (fig. 7.1) and other dementias (MacDowell, Luz, and Donaldson 2017). Here, we explore if there are characteristics or a set of motivations among older quiltmakers that are unique to advanced age or that one should consider when working with elders. We draw heavily on stories told by or about older adults that link the quiltmakers’ exper7 The Expressive Lives of Elders (2018): 138–152, DOI: 10.2979/expressivelivesofelders.0.0.08 Quilts and Aging | 139 ences related to aging and mortality with the material objects they create. As we will argue, our findings have relevance for all of us, personally and collectively. They mark a fledgling field of inquiry and invite others on a journey of discovery to understand more deeply the art of quiltmaking as experienced from the perspective of advanced age. What is perhaps most instructive for those who work with elders is to have an appreciation for the length and breadth of their experiences, the universality Fig. 7.1. Nevilyn, Linda J. Huff, Algonquin, Illinois, 2006. Collection of Michigan State University Museum. Photograph by Pearl Yee Wong. 140 | The Expressive Lives of Elders of their core needs regardless of physical, mental, or cognitive status, and ways in which they choose to express their unique selves. For the elders showcased here, quiltmaking was the primary activity of choice. Each quilt is different, a creative expression that reflects a unique individual. All of the quiltmakers quilted because they drew immense pleasure in the quiltmaking itself. For many of them, the fact that they were helping others or others valued their quilts was added pleasure. It gave their lives meaning and purpose and was a vehicle for staying socially connected, even more so if they were sharing a sense of community with other makers. Leona Scharfenberg, age ninety, provides an excellent example. When Leona moved into the Homestead at Hickory View Retirement Community in Washington , Missouri, she was disappointed to find that they didn’t have a quilting group, so she decided to start one. She transformed her apartment into a gathering place for the Homestead Stitchers, a group of women ranging in age from seventy-five to ninety-five. They make and donate quilts to Grace’s Place, an organization that offers no-cost childcare for families during a crisis. In the words of one group member, “It’s volunteer work. It’s just a way of living to do it. . . . That’s what life is all about.” Another said, “It feels really good. . . . There’s satisfaction, and keeping busy and knowing you’re doing something that’s making a difference ” (Butterfield 2013). To understand how Leona’s story connects to those of other elders and ultimately our own story, we need to step back and put this research in a larger context. The topic of folklore and the expressive lives of elders is both timely and important precisely because of recent and drastic demographic and social changes related to aging that will have an...


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