At nursing homes and senior care facilities throughout the nation, doll therapy is becoming increasingly popular. The alternative therapy is being used to ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia in elderly patients. People suffering from these conditions often experience some form of mental and/or emotional stress, and caregivers find that giving patients dolls gives them something to care for and love.
It is hypothesized that having a doll may bring back fond memories from their own parenting days. And a 2007 study provided support for previous attitudinal studies that suggested doll therapy is a promising and effective approach to use in the care of older adults with dementia.
Which is why Sandy Cambron, whose mother-in-law Pearl suffered from Alzheimer’s, set up a fundraising campaign to give as many Alzheimer’s patients as possible access to baby dolls. Cambron and her husband initially gave Pearl and all the other women in her facility baby dolls, and gave the men puppy dogs. The couple was amazed by the positive response.
On Valentine’s Day, the residents at Park Terrace Health Campus received their very own baby dolls and toy puppies as a result of Cambron’s efforts.
“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,” Shannon Blair—whose own mom is living with Alzheimer’s at Park Terrace—told Today. “It’s almost like Sandy was giving them something back that they’ve lost… immediately, they make a connection with it.”
“A lot of people with Alzheimer’s are bored and may become depressed or agitated or unhappy because they aren’t engaged,” Ruth Drew, director of family & information services at the Alzheimer’s Association, told NPR. The dolls serve as a way for patients to engage as they hold, change and dress the dolls.
But not everyone in the field has a positive view of the practice. “They are adults and we want to treat them like adults,” said Stephanie Zeverino, who works in community relations at a Belmont Village center in Los Angeles. “These are very well-educated residents,” she says, speaking of the desire to maintain the residents’ dignity.
But for those for whom the dolls seem to give a measure of comfort, their loved ones say the dolls are much appreciated.
“To see the light in her eyes when she has a baby in her arms, I don’t care if it’s real or if it’s pretending,” Ellen Swarts, whose mother Marilou Roos has benefited from playing with the dolls, told NPR. “If that gives her comfort, I am a-OK with it.”