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Doll Therapy Used for Persons with Dementia

The nostalgia of holding an infant or having you beloved family pet lay on your lap is unparalleled, but the use of doll therapy is a practice offered in memory care settings designed to mimic as many of those feelings as possible.

Doll therapy, defined as the evidence-based practice of offering dolls to persons with dementia (PWD) or other ailments with the goal of increasing engagement, comfort and quality of life.

The onset of a memory impairment does not erase a person’s former identity as a parent, employee, etc. As such, many individuals with dementia often experience an unmet need of wanting to feel purposeful or needed. Introducing a baby doll to a person with dementia offers a myriad of benefits.

A doll may elicit fond memories of their early parenting days, raising children and may also cue reminiscence between caregivers and PWD’s, especially if the primary caregiver is the spouse of child of that PWD.

Reclaiming the roll of a caregiver or parent, even to a doll, has the potential to meet the emotional need of a PWD has to feel “needed” or purposeful. Any parent will relate to the sentiment that s/he never stops being a parent, or stops wanting to be needed by their children, regardless of age.

On the flip side of that coin, many PWD frequently look for their mother, regardless of the fact she may have passed decades prior. This behavior is a sign of needing security and to feel safe-having a doll in their arms is often a solution that meets this need because of the nostalgia that comes from reminiscing what it’s like to have a newborn in their arms.

Doll therapy offers relief from many common features associated with dementia, like agitation, anxiety depression and loss of verbal skills (after all, cooing or singing to a baby is a natural response). Self-isolation is also a habit of many persons with dementia due to fear or not being comfortable in a group setting anymore. Taking on the role of a caregiver for a doll may offer a solution to these individuals, giving them a reason to participate in their environments.

Implementing doll therapy into memory care should not be done without careful thought. Many factors should be considered prior to offering this activity. The most common concern voiced by caregivers is the risk of being condescending; after all, carrying a doll is almost universally considered to be an activity for children. Taken the wrong way, a person with a memory impairment may feel like they’re being patronized. Doll therapy should also be viewed through a trauma-informed lens: individuals who have experienced miscarriage or the los of a child can be extremely triggered by the act of carrying a small child, even a doll.

It’s important to educate all caregivers involved in the care of the PWD. Many non-pharmaceutical interventions, like doll therapy, can be viewed with heavy skepticism. Encourage caregivers to use the doll to connect with the person for whom they care-ask questions about the doll’s gender, name, personality, etc. This can not only cue discussion and build rapport between caregiver and resident but also helps the caregiver gain a deeper understanding of how to make doll therapy more effective for their resident i.e. buying dresses for a doll the PWD identifies as a little girl.

Perhaps most important for a caregiver using doll therapy to know is to understand validation therapy: to a person with dementia, that baby doll may be incredibly real. Tossing the baby doll aside onto a couch or into an activity bin may highly distress the individual. Use the same care and gentleness you would for a real child when handling the resident’s doll.

In one successful case of using doll therapy at Dolan Memory Care Homes, a resident named Katie took to caring for one of the baby dolls in the home. Katie was a homemaker her entire adult life, raising her children and running a home. She found great comfort in caring for the baby doll whom she named “Cotton”. Though Cotton had no gender according to Katie, she cared for the child with great tenderness, dressing the doll in various outfits and cradling it at all times. Care Partners were careful and thoughtful in the way they engaged with Katie and Cotton. When offering her a meal, bath or activity, Care Partners asked if they could hold Cotton and take the baby off her hands for a while so she could rest. She gratefully accepted these offers and watched with appreciation as they gently rocked Cotton while she engaged in another activity or task.

Doll therapy, like many other alternative interventions, can be a highly beneficial intervention in settings such as memory care. Residents at Dolan Memory Care Homes enjoy activities like doll therapy among other purposeful activities that meet their social and emotional needs.

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