Doll Therapy with Dignity for Loved Ones Living with Dementia

pexels-photo-272056Babydolls.  Traditionally, a toy for little girls to play with, hold, and take comfort in has become a popular therapy tool for some individuals living with Dementia. Although this device should not be used for everyone, a baby doll does bring great comfort to those who have had an affinity to caring in their earlier years.

One particular memory care unit I worked on had a whole nursery set up in a quiet room at the end of the hall fixed with two cribs, a diaper bag, and a rocking chair.  These Items, of course, you would not ordinarily expect to see when the average resident was age 92. And yet, two women, in particular, would frequently come in throughout the day to lay the baby doll down for a nap, sing him a lullaby, or like any good mother would show him off to all the other staff and residents.

Sweet and endearing as it may seem the site of an older adult holding a baby doll and “pretending” that it is real can be alarming.  I’ve had several family members come up to me over the years questioning the practice partly out of concern for the persons well-being and partly because a women holding a baby doll is a visible reminder of dementia.

Dolls with Dignity

While caring for someone living with Dementia and Alzheimer’s we have a duty to uphold their dignity.  Dignity is so important that the Right to Dignity is an actual federal mandate in nursing homes. This right is particularly important while using Doll therapy. Like most treatments in Dementia care, while addressing or interacting with the individual and the baby doll, we must always treat the doll as if it were a real baby. And never correct the way in which the individual cares for the baby doll.

It is not uncommon for someone to swaddle and swoon over the doll in one moment only to drop them on the floor (by accident) the next.  They may leave the baby doll lying around, spill food on the doll, or even hold them upside down by the foot.  But this doesn’t mean that WE can do this.  Even if we think that the person isn’t watching we should always hold and treat the baby doll as if it were an actual baby.  Otherwise, they will probably perceive us as negligent, and they won’t be afraid to tell us this either.

 

Alzheimer's care doll therapy
Image Source NPR: Doll Therapy May Help Calm People With Dementia, But It Has Critics

 

There are several common questions people want to ask when they see doll therapy in use, but these questions are often the ones that we should avoid. For instance, we shouldn’t ask what the baby’s name is, how old the baby is, or who the father is.  Most likely they won’t be able to tell you and realizing that they have forgotten such important information can be quite upsetting. Instead, statements like “oh look at those cheeks” or singing a lullaby, are more engaging and empowering ways to enhance the therapeutic nature of baby dolls and will make the individual feel secure and even a bit prideful in that moment.

We don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed by doll therapy.  It brings great joy and comfort to care for a baby in this stage of their life and your support enhances their quality of life.

 

Does this Mean I should Buy Mom a Baby Doll?

No. As mentioned above, doll therapy is not for everyone, but if you notice that your loved one is feeling a bit more anxious laying a swaddled baby out where they can find them is a good way to see if they are interested.  Even placing the swaddled baby in their arms to see if they attach to them is okay. However, it should not be a forced process, and if uninterested you will surely know.  But, if their face lights up and a big smile appears you will know you’ve just given them a great gift of comfort.