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Baby Dolls Make Alzheimer's Patients Beam with Delight

Baby Dolls Make Alzheimer's Patients Beam with Delight
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Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but there’s still plenty of love in the air at the Park Terrace Health Campus in Louisville, Kentucky. On the 14th, volunteers handed out baby dolls and toy puppies to the Alzheimer’s patients at the nursing home and the reactions the patients had were surprising. The women were cradling the heads of the dolls and the men would gently stroke their puppies and held them on their lap.

The doll giveaway was part of an initiative called Pearl’s Memory Babies, a passion project for Sandy Cambron, a Kentucky native whose mother-in-law died of Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s Doll Therapy

alzheimer's doll therapy

Cambron was delivering the dolls with her co-worker Shannon Blair, whose mother is also staying at the home and living with Alzheimer’s.

“It’s heart-breaking and heart-filling all at the same time because it makes you realize they’re lonely because they’ve lost everything they know,” Blair told TODAY. “It’s almost like Sandy was giving them something back that they’ve lost… immediately, they make a connection with it.”

Cambron began her mission over decade ago when her mother-in-law Pearl was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and moved to a nursing home. Cambron tried different ways of easing the transition into a home. She first began with toy cats and dogs, as Pearl loved animals, but this had little effect. She didn’t really begin to cheer up until Cambron brought her a baby doll.

After Pearl passed in 2008, Combron decided to bring dolls to the other patients of the nursing home in her memory. She tried to return as often as she could delivering dolls every year when she could. When Combron heard that Blair’s mother was having a hard time at the home, she offered a doll for her and her roommate.

“I didn’t understand what I was about to experience,” Blair recalled. “My mom’s roommate had such an overwhelming reaction to the doll — it was very emotional.”

While there hasn’t been much research done about Alzheimer’s doll therapy, there is anecdotal evidence of it’s benefits. Daphne Simpson, a professional carer and lead nurse, understands that doll therapy has its critics, but it does have its benefits as well [2].

“The main argument against it is that it’s demeaning to a person with dementia. ‘Playing’ with a doll is something children do, not adults, they say.”

“Whilst I do sympathise with this opinion, especially when it’s expressed by family members who are upset or embarrassed at the sight of a loved one acting in an apparently infantile way, I do think doll therapy can be beneficial, when used correctly. In my opinion, doll therapy isn’t purely ‘playing,’ it’s actually fulfilling an important need; the need to nurture.”

These dolls allow the patients to reconnect with a side of themselves that they lost to Alzheimer’s. They may not remember exactly, but the feelings they had when holding these dolls is the same feeling they had when they held their own children and grandchildren. Simpson recalls a patient she had in the UK who responded positively to her doll.

“One lady, for example, was already non-verbal when I started caring for her, but was attached to her doll. She liked to wrap a shawl around it, cuddle, pat and kiss it. She was a mum of four who’d obviously spent many happy years nurturing her own babies, so this was a perfectly normal activity for her which she enjoyed – so why not?”

Other assisted living facilities have also adopted the idea, including Morning Pointe Assisted Living. Watch the touching moment when one woman sings a sing to her life-like doll: 

Tips for Using Doll Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

If you have a loved one that is suffering from Alzheimer’s and are interested in trying doll therapy, Simpson has some tips that can help [2]:

  1. Doll therapy is great for people with mid-stage dementia, but you can begin earlier if the loved one is open to it.
  2. You shouldn’t hand the doll directly to the person, instead leave it where they can see it and they will pick it up if they want to. The person you are caring for should not feel like the doll is being forced on them, this can stress them which defeats the purpose of the therapy.
  3. Get a doll that is as realistic as possible; there are a variety of dolls available that can be fed and even changed. Avoid dolls that cry or make noise as this can be aggravating for those with dementia.

It’s incredible the things that we hold on to, even when we think it’s lost, and that’s what Alzheimer’s doll therapy is all about according to Blair.

“It’s as if it’s a child or a grandchild, or something that maybe takes them back in time.”


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