BLOOMINGTON - It was just an old cloth bag with a small stuffed animal, buttons, some playing cards, a piece of fabric and a black and white photograph.
But to a person with dementia, that bag may calm anxiety and agitation and provide a connection to a happier time.
About 50 “rummage bags” have been assembled at Passage Hospice’s Central Illinois office, 404 N. Hershey Road, Suite A, Bloomington. Some bags are being distributed to area nursing homes for residents with dementia and some are available for home caregivers of people with dementia.
“Instead of throwing your junk out, you can use it for a really important purpose — helping someone with dementia,” said Jill Hudson of Gridley, among Passages Hospice volunteers packing rummage bags last week.
Dementia is a loss of brain function that affects memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior. The most common type is Alzheimer’s disease.
Rummaging, also called seeking, happens in mid- to late-stage dementia, primarily Alzheimer’s disease, when a person is looking for a personal object he or she thinks is lost or been stolen, said Passages dementia specialist Lauren Bruggenthies-Lott and Heather Mulder, manager of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Illinois Chapter.
In some cases, the object was lost. But sometimes, it has not been around for years. When the person doesn’t know what they are looking for, rummaging is a coping mechanism for language deficits. When speech and comprehension skills decline, people with Alzheimer’s disease find other ways to interact.
For example, when people with dementia are hungry but they can no longer say that, they rummage. Sometimes, people accustomed to being busy are looking for something to do, so they rummage. They become anxious and agitated and their caregiver can get frustrated.
The best way to handle agitation is to reassure the person and provide a tool to redirect them away from what is causing their agitation, Mulder said.
“This is where the rummage bags fit in,” she said.
Passages’ staff and volunteers — who work with people with Alzheimer’s — stuffed rummage bags using items donated by staff, volunteers and the community.
All items included in bags have significance. For example, a stuffed animal may calm someone who is agitated and remind them of a former pet. Fabric may be reassuring to someone who knitted or sewed. Playing cards and baseball cards may be a recollection of former hobbies. Magazines and old photographs can bring back family memories. Buttons also may be sorted by shape to occupy someone with Alzheimer’s.
Women’s rummage bags are bags or purses. Men’s bags are zipped pouches that look like a tool or toiletry bag.
“I think it’s a great idea to have something like that,” Mulder said of the rummage bags. “They are an opportunity for stimulation.”
But a word of warning: rummage bags — while they can ease anxiety for people with dementia and their caregivers — should be used under supervision only.
“The bags,” said Passages’ communications manager Kaitlyn Henderson, “are not babysitters.”