At home just outside Orlando, Florida, Rhonda Camen has a stockpile of about 100 jigsaw puzzles. At the rate she's going, she figures that should last her until the end of the year.
Camen, who retired about a year and a half ago, picked up puzzling as a hobby to keep her mind active and to give herself something to do while she listens to audiobooks. She can knock out a 1,000-piece puzzle in a couple of days. And since the coronavirus pandemic has kept her at home, her puzzle game is stronger than ever.
It keeps her mind off the troubles of the world.
"I like images that are bright,” she says, “especially in the world we're in right now. I've got two family members in Detroit in the hospital with COVID, so this is a distraction that's definitely needed."
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Surge in puzzle sales
She is not alone in that sentiment. Stay-at-home orders have sent jigsaw puzzles flying off the shelves almost as quickly as toilet paper. Puzzle makers say sales are up 300 to 370 percent over what they were this time a year ago.
"We're seeing sales numbers that are exceeding what we usually experience during December during the height of holiday shopping season,” says Thomas Kaeppeler, president of Ravensburger North America, a leading puzzle brand. “To put that in perspective, Ravensburger sold about seven puzzles per minute in 2019, and so far in 2020, we are looking closer to selling 20 puzzles per minute.”
Ceaco, a leading U.S. puzzle company, did more online sales on one day in March than in all of December, Ceaco President Carol Glazer says.
Suppliers are struggling to keep puzzles in stock because the coronavirus has temporarily shut down factories. But the demand is not letting up. It's not just new-fangled 3D puzzles or mystery boxes that are popular. It's ordinary 300- to 1,000-piece designs of landscapes or artwork or animals that are captivating people. Online puzzle groups have been a growing source for trading puzzles, tracking down ones that are hard to find and becoming virtual water coolers where people can gather, discuss their masterpieces and vent about things they don't like — like missing pieces or flimsy cardboard.
'It's my chill time'
Debra West, 62, an avid puzzler in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is part of the Facebook group Jigsaw Puzzlers, where she's found kindred spirits.
She's been working from home as a director of human resources and always has a puzzle going for when she takes breaks.
"It's so good to take your mind off of the stress of things in life,” she says. “I just love them."
"As we get older, I think we become very realistic about the things we do and don't want to accomplish,” West says. “And doing a puzzle, it's just perfectly fine as an accomplishment. I don't need to conquer the world or run a marathon or whatever. But it's good to still have some goals that make you feel whole."
For 50-year-old Missie Sabo, puzzling is a treat after working in sales all day and her new task of helping her 12-year-old do school from home.
"It's my chill time after working all day,” she says. “It's something I look forward to."
And in Georgia, 71-year-old Donna Crisp says puzzles are “good therapy.” She does them while she sits with her 40-year-old son, Benjamin, who has severe autism. They can have quiet time together, and she can do something that challenges her mind.
"It's a way of getting perspective and calm,” she says.
A fix for strange times
Chris Byrne, a toy industry expert in New York known as the Toy Guy, says that puzzles have always appealed to seniors but that they can be a fun, noncompetitive activity for the whole family.
"I think like anything that's become a fad, it will plateau,” he says. “But we may in fact bring more people into puzzling as an activity."
In Colorado, Richard McCusker has nostalgic memories of his family doing wooden puzzles by the fireplace on stormy nights more than 60 years ago.
"In today's age, everybody's always on their smartphone. You're always texting or looking up news,” he says. “And that was one of the reasons I got back into puzzling."
McCusker, a retired contractor, likes the feeling he gets after putting a puzzle together, almost the same feeling he had finishing a house or deck and admiring his work.
For Carol Rice, who is in her 80s and lives outside Chicago, isolation has left her a little out of sorts and in need of a distraction she can walk away from without getting frustrated.
For her, a good puzzle is about finding an image you can get lost in. She likes unusually shaped pieces and concentrations of color.
"Working a puzzle has enough diversion and absorption, without the kind of commitment that reading a book would have,” she says. “I think that's part of the charm of it."
Good for the brain
Monique Gingold, 66, a retired pediatric neurologist in California, took to jigsaw puzzles as a stress reliever and has kept at it because she likes what it does for her mind. She says this time of coronavirus has turned her into something of a puzzle addict.
"When you're working on a puzzle, you can't worry about anything else,” she says. “You can't let other thoughts intrude. It's almost like meditation for me."
As a physician who knows something about the brain, Gingold likes what working on puzzles does for her cognitive skills, memory and ability to focus.
During this tumultuous time, puzzling can bring a sense or peace, she says. “It's become my N95 mask to keep the coronavirus thoughts out of my mind."
Even after this is all over, she says, the enduring lure of puzzles is that they'll always be an escape.
Some puzzling options
- 3D puzzles, such as the New York City skyline, are among Amazon.com's top-selling puzzles.
- Mystery puzzles come with no image on the box (like those from Artifact Puzzles).
- Lots of pieces can be an extra challenge. While 300- and 1,000-piece puzzles are the most popular, the world's largest jigsaw puzzles incude Educa's 42,000-piece “Around the World” design.
- Sized for seniors puzzles are available from manufacturers such as Ravensburger, which makes 300 large-piece jigsaw puzzles for adults.
- Irregular puzzle pieces are a specialty of Wentworth Wooden Puzzles, which offers irregular, hand-drawn pieces.
- Making your own is another way to go. Whether you want a personalized photo, something artsy or something DIY, the internet can get you there.