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Doll Therapy for Dementia Residents

Growing up, I was never a doll person. My grandmother and mother had a gift shop together, and they would often buy me beautifully handcrafted dolls from around the globe. There were a couple I briefly played with, but mostly they went up onto the shelves in my bedroom…and they used to scare the daylights out of me at night. If you stare at anything long enough in a dimly lit room, it looks like it is moving. At some point, those dolls went back into their boxes and were sent into storage, where I completely forgot about them.

Then one day many years later, I started working as a senior living designer. I still remember the first time I handled a doll at one of the memory care communities, and how it made me think about those dolls from my childhood. But upon closer inspection, this doll was much different. It was weighted like a newborn baby, had limbs that moved, real hair, and additions to the face like tears and blushing cheeks. This doll was fairly human-like, and not scary at all. When later that day I saw a resident sitting in the dining room with the doll on her lap, I knew there was something to these dolls.

Doll therapy is not new, but is becoming increasingly popular due to its success and to the rise in dementia diagnoses. It is quite a controversial therapy, especially with family members. To see your relative walking around with a baby doll seems childish and patronizing to some. When residents start talking to and treating their doll like it is a real baby, it can be uncomfortable to those around them who know it is a doll. The therapy also doesn’t work for everyone. Some residents take to it easily, and the benefits are seen immediately. Others may have had negative experiences with children or babies, and the dolls can make them angry or violent. I myself have not witnessed any negative behavior, but I had an aide once tell me that they had a woman resident who choked the baby doll and yelled at it. Like any therapy, residents need to be monitored when interacting so results can be gauged and documented.

More often than not, the results I see are much like the video above. I just recently completed a renovation at a memory care community in Florida, where we set up a Parenting Life Skill Station complete with two dolls. I was wheeling a bassinet down the hallway with a baby inside, and a woman resident stopped me. “What’s in there?” she asked with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. “A baby!” I responded, “would you like to hold her?” I picked the ‘baby’ up as I would a human, and gently handed it to the resident. She held the doll out at arms’ length and looked her over and said “Look at you!” She then held her to her chest, and began bouncing the doll down the hallway and quietly singing. My heart was soaring.

About 30 minutes later, the resident came upon me setting up the Parenting station. She held the doll out to me, so I said “Thank you for bringing her back!” and set the doll back in the bassinet. The woman smiled and went on her way. There was no more conversation or acknowledgment of the doll while I was there. But for that brief time, that woman experienced happy, positive emotions. I think that was a win.

Below are some tips to keep in mind when using doll therapy:

  1. Let the resident discover the doll. Leave the doll in a place where it makes sense that you would find a baby, such as a bassinet or changing table. Leaving a doll somewhere careless like on the floor or a table may cause them distress (how would you feel finding an infant laying on the floor?) It is also important not to push the resident into the therapy. Letting them discover the doll lets them decide whether to interact or not.

  2. Treat the doll like it is a human baby. Call it a baby. Hold and carry it like a baby. Again, think about the anxiety you would feel if you saw someone carrying a baby by one arm, or saw them toss a baby onto a table.

  3. Try to use a doll that looks as life-like as possible. As mentioned above, having a human weight and movement, real hair, and non-stylized features can help the therapy succeed. Check out our dolls here.

  4. Make sure people around the resident understand doll therapy so they can participate and interact.

Have you had successes or failures with doll therapy? Let us know, we would love to share your experiences in a future post!


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