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House Calls: Doll therapy can help

Doll therapy has been used for Alzheimer’s dementia patients for around 20 years. Doll therapy has been known to give patients suffering from dementia the feeling of having a purpose. The patient may care for the doll as they would a baby, such as feeding it, changing it, dressing it or simply holding it. This may revert them back to a pleasant time in their lives when they were younger and taking care of their own children.

Studies show this type of therapy can produce a calming effect on the patient. Many times this can reduce the need for medicines used for agitation or anxiety.

There are some who are opposed to doll therapy. Some people feel as if the dolls can be childish, demeaning, or even patronizing. Doll therapy is used mainly in early and middle stages of dementia. In many cases the doctor or caregiver is looking for anything that may make the patient happy or calm. If people will give doll therapy a chance, it can make a big difference in the patient’s well-being.

If you are not sure if doll therapy is right for your loved ones, simply read their eyes when a doll is introduced. They will give immediate feedback. You will see a spark in their eyes if they would benefit. People with dementia have emotional needs that are not often fulfilled. The “Spark of Life” emotional needs are: to feel needed, to have the opportunity to take care someone, to have self-esteem boosted, to love and to be loved and to express emotions freely. When these needs are not fulfilled, they tend to go back to memories that allowed them to feel this spark. Often they relive these memories. Like saying, “my babies are crying, I have to take care of them,” or “I want to see my mommy,” even though that person may have passed away many years ago.

This is not crazy, but instead, a meaningful way to fulfill these needs.

Freud pointed out that all of us want to display nurturing love. Women may return to this if they had done this before when they had children of their own. For men, instead of introducing a doll, we offer a dog, a lion, or a monkey. These are more masculine; however, the nurturing desire is still the same. The nurturing need exists strongly but what is missing is a natural way to fulfill it and that is where doll therapy comes in. There is a wide range of stories and studies that show this to improve the overall well-being of the person with dementia.

Doll therapy is usually introduced in the early to middle stages of dementia. In the early stages the patient may know the doll is not real but will enjoy naming it and changing clothes or playing with it. In the middle stages of dementia the patients will usually try to communicate with the doll, sometimes singing it. Patients are likely to begin carrying it around and may attempt to feed it. They become very attached to the doll. In late stages doll therapy is not as effective as in earlier stages but may still show some benefit.

I have many Alzheimer’s patients in my practice and have witnessed first-hand the calming effect that a stuffed animal or doll can have on a patient. Many times this is their security blanket to the world. I have seen the patients talk to the doll and even have a chair for the baby at the dining room table.

My daughter Emily shares my compassion for patients with dementia and wanted to make a difference in their lives. She created “Dolls for Dementia,” a non- profit organization recognized by the state of Arkansas as an incorporated company. The mission of this organization is to provide dolls and stuffed animals to nursing home patients and other people with dementia.

Emily has received donations and has had help from her FBLA group at school raising money for this charity. Her goal is to provide 100 dolls this year. She has recently purchased her first 20 dolls/stuffed animals and is beginning to distribute them to patients.

For information on how to get a doll for your loved one with dementia or to find out how you can help please contact us at www.dollsfordementia.com for detailed information about the organization. You can also like us on Facebook or follow us on Instagram.

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