When Kristina Durham visited her mother, Birgitta Vagenius, she couldn’t believe what she saw: her mother had begun knitting again. And not only knitting, but creating hand-made dolls that take precision, complex loops and willing hands.
Kristina is too familiar with Parkinson’s disease (PD). She saw her father battle Parkinson’s for 22 years, and now travels to Indiana whenever she can to see her mother, who has also been diagnosed with PD. Birgitta, 84, is still independent, living alone, and over the last few months, happier.
Birgitta has always been drawn to the arts. In her homeland of Sweden she grew up painting, sewing, knitting and playing the piano. She graduated with a degree in piano and later taught it. In 1965, Birgitta moved to the United States with her husband and four young children, where she continued to express herself through art. Decades later, her crafts came to a halt because of intense tremors.
She didn’t pick up her knitting needles again until last year, when she came across a baby sweater she never finished for her now 18-year-old grandson. Much to her surprise, with shaking hands she was able to finish the sweater. Looking for new ideas, Birgitta found a book on Swedish crafts and chose a new project.
She used her kitting skills to make a doll. Creating something felt so good that she made more. The more dolls Birgitta made, the more her Parkinson’s symptoms lessened, especially her tremors. Each doll takes nearly three hours and requires an arduous amount of detail, but they allow Birgitta to express herself again. Birgitta has made 60 dolls to date, each one unique.
Her daughter, Kristina, said her parents each had an amazing sense of humor and were happy people. As PD progressed they each had facial masking. Although they remained happy and light-hearted, no one knew based on looks. Kristina says that Birgitta’s dolls can express her sense of humor and personality when her face can’t.
While creating the dolls have helped with tremors, her favorite part of the process is giving them away. She has an entire basket of completed dolls she looks forward to gifting. She gives them to her children, grandchildren, friends and doctors. Her heart fills up when someone smiles or laughs as a result to receiving a personalized doll that she made.
Birgitta is now creating Easter-themed dolls and will be giving them away soon. Building off of her momentum in her improved symptoms, she recently started water therapy to improve her movement. She feels great and is thinking about which project she wants to take up next.
Kristina is inspired by her mother’s ability to pick up knitting after almost 15 years. She hopes that her mother’s story can inspire people within the Parkinson’s community to try something new, something they thought was forever lost after diagnosis.