"Move the pen, Charlie Brown, or the knitting needles and paint brush. It's good for you! Just do it!"

“Move the pen, Charlie Brown, or the knitting needles or paint brush. It’s good for you! Just do it!”

One of my favorite gifts to give to special friends for Congratulations, Thinking of You, and Get Well Soon is a colorful hand-knitted washcloth wrapped around a bar of fancy bath soap and tied with ribbon.  It’s a relaxing, TV-watching activity for me, but it took awhile to locate the directions.

Years before my mother’s dementia, she learned the pattern for these washcloths, and she delivered the colorful, much appreciated gifts with homemade soap to many friends and hospital patients.   So six years ago when I wanted to knit my own, I expected that Mom would show me how.

“But I never knitted anything,” she said, obviously confused and forgetful of the many scarves and baby blankets she’d made.  She was adamant.  So I sat in the chair next to her recliner, took out my knitting needles and yarns and began making a basic washcloth of horizontal lines of stitches… practical but not unusual or especially attractive.  I put another set of needles and a ball of yarn next to my mother without saying anything.


It didn’t take long before she picked up the needles and—while still watching the TV—she cast on yarn and began knitting.  Soon I recognized the diagonal increase on each row, then decreases that for years she’d used to create lacy borders on all four sides.  I unraveled my straight horizontal rows and started over.  Mom took a nap, and when she awoke she commented on the pretty piece I was knitting, and asked where I’d learned it.


Haptic memory retrieval occurs through smell, sound, and touch, but most especially touch.  Repetitive physical, tactile activities buried by Alzheimer’s, dementia or stroke damage can be nudged alive via Haptic memory retrieval.  Playing musical instruments, braiding hair, tying shoe laces, digging in soil to plant seeds, drawing and painting are among helpful Haptic activites.

There is one Haptic example that is humorous but not recommended.   In 1901, modern toilet paper began when a Green Bay, Wisconsin company marketed “sanitary tissue.” However, during the manufacturing process, wood chips remained embedded in the toilet paper, which was not a good thing. It was years before another process made “splinter-free” toilet paper.  Needless to say, we’re grateful this is not used as Haptic memory retrieval.roll-of-toilet-paper



Filed under art projects, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, just doing the best we can, lessons for great-grandchildren, Things to be thankful for

41 responses to “HAPTIC MEMORIES

  1. juliabarrett

    It’s sort of like muscle memory. If I think too much I can’t do it. The idea is not to think. I do the same thing with directions/driving. I don’t think about it. My brain works better when I just drive. As in… I remember how to get somewhere if I’ve driven there once.

    • Very same premise, Julia. Muscle memory, Haptic memory retrieval and any kind of repetitive activity is an excellent technique being used with Alcheimer’s, dementia and stroke patients. The memory doesn’t always last long, but at least for a while, the person is retrieving memories and enjoying them–sometimes opening other memory portals–and that’s a very good thing! 😉

  2. I hope haptic memory will click into place when I take a spin on my bike tomorrow. Just in case, my helmet could be my salvation. I have neglected this delightful sport since before The Big Move. Now I have no excuse.

    Your visuals and illustrations are heart-warming as usual. Thank you for always being a bright spot in my week, Marylin.

    • As I’ve learned from experience, Marian, no matter how long it’s been, you don’t forget how to ride a bike. But be sure to wear a helmet, and don’t ride on sidewalks–you’re no match for small children on tricycles who beep their horns and plow right at you! 😉 Enjoy your ride!

  3. Claudia

    I have made some of these same washcloths and also received a few. Anyone who knits knows their power! I am glad to still be here for Thanksgiving and wish you a HappyThanksgiving with your family!

  4. You taught me something new today…what Haptic memory is. I loved your knitting story and the photo of the finished works of art, Marylin. The toilet paper story and ending with a photo of a roll tiolet paper made me laugh. ❤️

    • I cannot image toilet paper with wood splinters, Tracy! Talk about a shocking Haptic experience. But my grandfather once said they used old newspapers in the outhouse when he was growing up, and that doesn’t appeal to me, either. 🙂 ❤

  5. Don

    Fascinating post Marylin. Strange, I have had moments when a particular smell has awakened a memory in me, then over a period of time I have forgotten the memory only for it to be awakened again some time in the future by the same smell. I just find it amazing how your Mother picked up on the memory and how you enabled that to happen.

    • It was fascinating, Don. She watched TV and knitted, and then later said she didn’t know how to knit. I have a friend whose father had a Haptic memory connection when he shoveled snow or swept the sidewalk, so each morning they headed outside, and for a good hour after each activity he was much less confused.
      I read an article that said a basic sensory test for Alzheimer’s was peanut butter. Without seeing what it was, if you could identify the smell of peanut butter, you probably did not have Alzheimer’s. It’s all very interesting.

  6. I love this story, Marylin! I love to knit but haven’t had time since my daughter was born, in fact, her unfinished baby blanket still awaits my attention. Maybe for her first child??? I will have to teach her to knit soon. She would love it and it would be a wonderful thing for the two of us to do together – now, where to find the free time. I am, in fact, off to retrieve her from dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker. It’s been a long week of late nights rehearsing with 4 shows this weekend, and next weekend. Thank you for sharing the concept of “haptic memories”. When we visit my mother-in-law over Christmas I will have to use some with her. Have a wonderful weekend! XO

    • Oh, I love it, Robyn. Yes, keep working on the baby blanket whenever you get a chance, and when you give it to your grandchild instead of your daughter, you’ll have a built in generational heirloom! 😉
      Ah, The Nutcracker. I hope you’re the photographer.
      Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving! ❤

  7. It’s amazing Marylin that just sitting kitting beside your Mom could bring forth the memory in her of how to do it again, and make it such a reflex action while watching TV.
    As always I send you both Humongous Hugs xxxxxx

    • And even though an hour later she didn’t think she had ever knitted, David, at least for awhile she was happily knitting. Sometimes we applaud happy minutes instead of thinking it has to be a full change to mean anything. 😉 Many hugs to you, too! ❤

  8. How wise you are Marylin – to know instinctively to leave those needles and the wool near your mother. I’d never heard of Haptic Memory although I’m sure I’ve had them. Love the loo paper story…imagine that…splinters…ouch! 😊

    • Oh, I know, Jenny. Splinters in toilet paper? 😦 My grandfather told me that when they had an outhouse, they kept old newspapers to use. That seemed too awful…until I read about wood chips and splinters! 😉

      • I think newspaper was quite widely used pre war here where toilets were often out houses – at the end of the yard…how things have changed!

      • According to his stories, Jenny, the “printers ink” on newspapers printed in my grandfather’s time was highly smear-ing, and it wasn’t uncommon to be allergic to it, either. To use it as toilet paper would have made it quite a conversation piece or embarrassing to explain to a doctor: “Uh…I have this rash…” 😉

  9. Jane Sturgeon

    How instinctively wise to leave the needles and yarn by your Mum’s side Marylin….so soothing to create and it flows love. I have been making Superman dishcloths to bring a smile at Christmas. Much ❤ and smiles flowing across to you…and loving hugs. xXx ❤

    • Superman dishcloths? Oh, Jane, I hope you’ll post a picture on one of your blogs. How fun is that!
      I had no idea Mom would pick up the needles and try knitting again when I set the yarn and needles next to her, but I figured it was worth a try. When she started knitting, I was thrilled. It’s these little joys we treasure when we’re working with Alzheimer’s and dementia. ❤

      • Jane Sturgeon

        So much ❤ flowing to you and your Mum for your little joys ❤

      • Jane, I’m going to print out your recent post about the trees, the deep roots and the lessons, and read them aloud to my mother. It’s a powerful blog post, and I suspect she’ll make the same memory connection I did when I read it today. Good job!

  10. What a wonderful story, Marylin. I can picture your mother picking up those knitting needles.
    I’ve never heard of Haptic memory retrieval…so interesting. I do know for me, music triggers a lot of memories.
    As for wood chips in TP…OUCH! xo

    • In your next romance novel, there’s probably no good place for toilet paper with wood chips, Jill, but maybe musical memories? 😉
      And also, certain scents and tastes will really awaken memories, too. Peanut butter is one that both scent and taste.

  11. What a heartwarming story Marylin, I always enjoy reading them. My mom used to knit socks until she was 89. She knew how to do it but her hands and eyes didn’t allow her to do a good job. I never learned how to knit socks but I could help her in retrieving stitches . Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • Socks have always been beyond my talent level, Gerlinde. A friend’s mother used to knit wonderful socks, but the way she did it involved using 4 small knitting needles at the same time, and it seemed so complicated. But I remember her watching TV or talking on the phone while she did the knitting, not watching what she was doing.
      Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving, too! 😉

  12. A very hope-filled post Marylin. The gift packs bring a little luxurious comfort and the special quality of a gift made with love and time.
    I hadn’t heard of haptic memory before either – at least I don’t remember hearing about it 😉 How wonderful that your Mom just picked up the needles and started to knit while distracted by the tv. Lots to think about here. You TP story reminds us life in the past could be rough at times.

    • “Rough at times” is a charming way to describe toilet paper with wood chips, Rod. 🙂
      Even now, as I think of my mother lifting the yarn and needles and begin knitting while watching TV, it’s a very happy memory, my own Haptic recollection.

  13. You describe a lovely image of you and your mother knitting. It’s amazing the way the brain remembers certain activities.

    • My dad died of Alzheimer’s years ago, Merril, but I remember one morning just months before he died when he didn’t want to wear his slippers. He pointed to his shoes, and after the caregiver put them on his feet, he tied the shoe laces. He was so amazed and proud. The realization was brief but very happy.

  14. Marylin, I do not doubt that deep down your mother remembered knitting. How amazing. I love this story and I too love to give scented soaps to friends as gifts.
    The part about toilet paper- now that is humorous! xoxo Joanne

    • Yep, the wood-chipped toilet paper puts it all in perspective, Joanne. 🙂
      I’ve made many of the lacy-edged personal washcloths since that day with my mom, but each one makes me smile as I remember how she picked up the needles and yarn and responded to the memories. ❤

  15. Mary Zalmanek

    I love the washcloths you knitted for me. Thanks so much.

  16. Jim

    The knitting story about your mom seems incredible but is actually a well-founded phenomenon. In sports we call it muscle-memory. It’s pretty amazing. For example, one practices intensely–over and over and over–a routine in figure-skating, or shooting 3-pointers in basketball, or arrows into a bulls-eye at 50 yards, or a routine in gymnastics. Then when the pressure is on during competition, one SHUTS DOWN one’s brain and totally trusts one’s muscle-memory which performs flawlessly, just like those thousands of times during practice. Some athletes call this brainless phenomenon “being in the zone.” It’s not easy to trust muscle-memory under the pressure of competition. Many athletes never learn to let it happen no matter how hard they practice.

    Nadia Comăneci had a somewhat different way to describe the phenomenon. In the 1976 Olympics in Montreal Nadia earned the first ever 10.0 in Olympic history. The performance was on balance beam. Nadia amazed the spell-bound arena audience as well as a world-wide TV audience of millions with the difficulty of her routine on the beam, performed with such grace and beauty. I was one of the millions watching on TV. I have always remembered Nadia’s reply to an American commentator’s interview right after the event. The commentator asked Nadia slowly in English so the fourteen year-old Romanian might understand, “All these people here watching ONLY you . . . Olympics for Romania . . . millions on TV . . . perfect on the beam . . . how did you do it?” Nadia seemed to pause briefly, searching for the right English words so that we might understand her miracle performance. She replied humbly, “The beam . . . me . . . one.” (Nadia went on to earn six more perfect 10’s in events at the Montreal Games. Pretty amazing.)

    Maybe dementia has shut down your mom’s brain, sweetie, but it has ironically opened the pathway to her perfect muscle-memory. Pretty amazing. I say Mary gets a 10.0. ❤

  17. My mom would love it, Jim, earning a 10.0 from you, her beloved son-in-law! This all reminds me of watching you work with our daughter, and now our grandchildren, making sports fun for them but also doing the throws and serves and returns and all motions over and over and over. Muscle memory, punctuated by a wonderful teacher/coach whose first lessons were always taught with love. You’re the 10.0, honey. ❤

  18. Molly

    Haptic memories?? Hmmmm…..I had never known that these kinds of things had a name. It is cool that they do. I am not sure what I do out of Haptic memory…oh wait, I just figured out one – typing! I can sit here and type this while also watching TV or talking to the kiddos. When playing sports, I definitely remember that when things were practiced over and over then when it was time to use them, it just kind of happened without even having to think about it. I wish I could think of something more meaningful…maybe as I get older!

    • Your dad is smiling as I read your comment, Mookie. If anyone had a powerful, Haptic response, it was you with your amazing tennis serve. And also typing as part of multi-tasking, plus keeping the kids on task and answering their questions. 🙂
      For me, sewing/mending/hemming, and of course knitting Grandma’s pattern for the lacy-edged washcloths while also watching TV are my favorite Haptic response.
      I think if Grandma could visit her big garden at the house in springtime (if the new owners still have the garden), we might be surprised at her Haptic memory retrieval to dig in the soil and plant seeds. ❤

  19. Ouch! That kind of haptic memory retrieval is definitely not one to try! I laughed out loud though at the thought, yikes! Oh Marylin, I’ve never heard of this, but I was so moved by your knitting story and the way your mom picked up her needles like that. It really is amazing what remains buried in the brain. I love the image of you and your mom sitting side by side, knitting quietly, sharing such a precious time together. And what a lovely, thoughtful gift too 🙂 ❤

    • Every time I begin knitting a new project, Sherri, I remember that day and smile. It is a special memory, even though it didn’t last long and afterwards she forgot she’d done it at all. This process taught me to make the most of every special moment–even if she doesn’t remember it later–and just appreciate it for what it is.
      I’m wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving, a combination of your CA and UK life! 😉 ❤

      • Oh I’m so glad you have those precious memories Marylin…so very important. And thank you my friend, although we will have our turkey at Christmas! Enjoy your holiday weekend! 🙂 ❤

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