Handmade crafts: How Tempe seniors stay active, create gifts for community

The end table in the meeting room of the Tempe Needlewielders gets filled throughout the morning with the member’s completed projects for donation. (Photo by Hannah Dickens)

By Hannah Dickens

On any Tuesday or Thursday morning, talking and laughing can be heard down the hallway of the Pyle Adult Recreation Center from the meeting of the Tempe Needlewielders. Retirees from 50 to 96 years old gather to knit, quilt, crochet, needlepoint or sew handmade items for donation to groups all around Tempe.

Christy Summers, the supervisor of the Tempe Needlewielders for the city of Tempe, sees the group as a way to give retirees a time for socialization.

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The Tempe Needlewielders have their own storage room in the Pyle Adult Recreation Center that they use for both materials and bins of finished products for donation. (Photo by Hannah Dickens)

“A lot of these ladies live alone. They’re widows, and their children may live far away. So this is their social time,” Summers said. “They come from a variety of different backgrounds but they have one thing in common: They want to donate things to charity and they want to keep knitting or crocheting or quilting, which is what they’ve always loved to do. So they come here.”

In 2015, the Tempe Needlewielders crafted over 2,500 items for donation, from baby afghans and booties to walker bags, hats for cancer patients and 100-percent wool helmet liners for soldiers. They also donate monetarily and craft things for a fair they hold every year in October.

Tempe Needlewielders member Miriam Piñero says the generosity of people in the group extends from helping charities to helping and caring between the members, and they are more like a family.

“I feel fine because we are helping other people. And we help one another here, too,” Piñero said. “It’s like you have family here.”

 According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, 8.4 percent of people in Tempe were more than 65 years old.

Diana Meyer, the senior recreation coordinator for the Pyle Adult Recreation Center, said the seniors who come to the center want to have socialization rather than isolation.

“By and large, the seniors that come here come for activities that really involve interaction and that’s why they come. And that’s our job to get them out of the house,” Meyer said.

Meyer said people come to the center through the city of Tempe or are brought in by their friends or children who are looking to get them active and around other people.

“Socialization is probably the most important thing to cognitive health. There’s still more going on and they’re having fun,” Meyer said.

A 2011 study by a team at Rush University Medical Center on late-life social activity and cognitive decline in old age found that more socially active seniors had a much lower rate of cognitive decline than the less socially active seniors.

Cognitive function in this study was assessed through various types of memory, perceptual speed and the capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships.

The center also offers bridge, chess, tap dancing, exercise, painting, a new monthly ballroom dance class and more to give seniors options for being active and involved.

The Tempe Needlewielders meet together to sit, craft and talk together every Tuesday and Thursday mornig. (Photo by Hannah Dickens)

The Tempe Needlewielders meet together to sit, craft and talk together every Tuesday and Thursday morning. (Photo by Hannah Dickens)

Tempe Needlewielders member Oralia Keeme said the most important thing for seniors to do is to keep active.

“Sewing and crocheting keeps your mind busy and active and talking to the people, not staying at home by yourself,” Keeme said. “I think it’s really good, joining a group.”

Joining a group like the Tempe Needlewielders can provide anything from a way to create new things to finding new friends or connections.

One of the things that become apparent when speaking with the members of the group is that there is a vast variety of backgrounds and cultures. Members’ nationalities range from Italian to Taiwanese to Puerto Rican and more.

Keeme was born in Mexico and moved to Tempe when she got married to her husband. They have been married for 55 years and have four children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Piñero was born in Puerto Rico and lived there all of her life until moving to Arizona last year. She taught blind children with braille for 30 years in Puerto Rico.

Meity Finley was born in Indonesia to Chinese and Indonesian parents and has been independent for most of her life. She speaks five languages and has traveled to 15 different countries.

Li Chuan (Roxanne) Beasley was born in Taiwan and still has family living there today. She met her husband in 1990 and got married a year later. They traveled across the world together in their missionary work until they came to Arizona where they stayed.

Listen to these women tell their stories below.

The bringing together of cultures and experiences brings to light differences in how seniors are treated in various countries.

“I know American society very (much) emphasizes privacy or individualism, not like Asian families,” Beasley said. In Asian culture, “three generations still live in the same house or at least children try to buy houses around, nearby their parents or grandparents so we can take care of them or watch over them. But here it’s much more like each one just kind of has your own box, your own apartment, and that’s very lonely and very isolated too.”

Each country around the world has its own laws and customs, including those connected to senior care and old age, according to an article in The Week. Some countries, like France and China, have passed laws or civil codes to respect and keep in contact with elders, Korea, Japan and China have a deep connection with the concept of filial piety. Mediterranean and Latin cultures have a focus and priority placed on family. Meanwhile, Western cultures like the United States and the United Kingdom tend to be youth-centric and emphasize individualism and individual value tied to a person’s ability to work, which decreases in older age.

But having different languages or cultures doesn’t stop these members from talking to each other and sharing stories, jokes or skills. Tempe Needlewielder members Piñero and Beasley both speak to using knitting or crocheting to connect over those potential barriers.

“And just like knitting or crocheting people, maybe our English is not that good, but once we take out our project and we can share, and so quickly become friends and teach each other,” Beasley said. “So it’s good, kind of like a medium to help us to share that same ground. So immediately we can help each other to learn.”

The Tempe Needlewielders each hold lifetimes of knowledge and techniques and with them the joy and willingness to share those experiences to help those around them.

“So mentally, emotionally, we support each other and also we share the skill and teach each other,” Beasley said. “And all the projects, all the things we create, we made and we can also can help a lot of people.”

The Tempe Needlewielders will be a part of the Pyle Adult Recreation Center’s annual Fall Arts & Crafts Boutique on Oct. 21 and 22.

Find a local senior or recreation center near you with the map below.

This is a map of the senior and recreation centers in the eight most populous cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Each of the eight cities on this map has its own pin color marking senior centers.

Editor’s note: This page has been updated to reflect the oldest member’s age.