A stitch in time: Sewing helps woman fight arthritis, effects of aging

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

COVINGTON -- Dorothy Alford is a prime example of how it's never too late to find, or rediscover, your passion in life.

At age 84, her arthritic hands are back in motion, sewing away to create lap quilts, potholders and pillows. It's a skill Alford thought she'd lost before she came to EJB Adult Day Care Center on Kirkland Road in December.

Alford could barely hold a pair of scissors when she arrived at the center, and was quiet and withdrawn.

"She has arthritis real bad. She would knit or crochet. She would do a little and then put it down," said the center's director, Fay Laing Salmon.

When Alford's daughter mentioned that she used to sew, Salmon began encouraging her to take up the hobby again.

"I was in shock. I didn't think I could do what she wanted done," Alford said.

Salmon brought in a sewing machine and gave Alford some scrap material. At first, Alford said she didn't know where to start. Though Salmon initially told Alford to make whatever she wanted, Alford couldn't decide. So Salmon suggested she make bibs for the other clients.

At first, Alford's fear nearly dissuaded her. "It takes a lot of concentration. I told them, 'You know, I may have forgotten,'" Alford said. Though she struggled at first, once Alford got going, her hands seemed to be working on their own accord.

"I said to her, 'What are you doing?' Salmon said. "She said, 'I don't know.'"

Soon Alford was once again a whiz at the sewing machine, churning out all kinds of creations. She made the bibs, then made some more that were reversible, so the wearers could choose which pattern they prefer. She even included "crumb pockets" to catch food.

She sews in a back room of the center, where she can have privacy and work in the quiet.

"She's in her glory," Salmon said. "When she's sewing, she tunes out the rest of the world."

The staff has seen an improvement in Alford mentally and physically.

"To me she was more forgetful (before she started sewing)," said Heather Wise, a nurse at the center. "It's just sparking something in her brain. She's more talkative because of that. She was withdrawn."

Alford's smoking habit has almost fallen by the wayside as well, now that she has a distraction, Wise said. When she first came to the center, she smoked quite a bit, but now Alford is down to one or two cigarettes a day.

Alford also thinks the sewing is giving her back the use of her hands.

But she still sometimes gets discouraged that her work isn't quite at the level it used to be.

"I know what I have done and what I can do. I don't know when I will be able to retrieve or bring out what is stored in my brain," she said.

Alford learned to sew from her mother and four sisters at age 10.

"My mother said, 'You never know what you will have to do. You may not have anyone to sew up a seam for you. So learn all you can about sewing. If you have scraps of fabric, learn how to put them together.'"

Alford made a jacket at age 12, and, "That turned me on," she said. "I thought, if I can make that, I can make anything."

Years later, she made her daughter's wedding dress and dresses for all her bridesmaids. But as she got older and more feeble, Alford lost interest in her hobby. It took coming to the center to motivate her again.

"I enjoy coming up here. It gives me something to do. Just sitting at home and watching TV all day, with nothing to do, it gets boring," she said.

Seeing people like Alford finding new meaning in life is encouraging to Salmon, who started the center just for that purpose. EJB is named after her father, Ellude Jeremiah Brown, who was a longtime patron of the Newton County Senior Center. Seeing the benefit he got from being there, Salmon recognized there was a great need for similar facilities among seniors in the community. After her father died, Salmon opened the center in his house.

The center provides a place for seniors and other adults to stay during the day while their caretakers are at work or otherwise occupied. The staff there tries to tailor activities to the individual interests of their clients. Some like to sew, others prefer to read, while still others like to sing or dance.

"Every day, they're doing something different, so they're not just sitting here," Salmon said.

For Alford, that approach is working wonders. In addition to giving her something productive to do, Alford believes the center, and her sewing, may have helped her recapture her youth.

"I don't know how 84 is supposed to feel, but I feel good," she said.