People with Alzheimer’s, Dementia Benefit from Calming Effects, Caregiving

There is something instinctual about how an adult immediately begins to sway and gently pat a baby’s back as soon as he or she begins to hold her. Those instincts to soothe (and receive) comfort remain with people even in the midst of Alzheimer’s and dementia. That’s why Joelin Mueller, life enrichment team lead at Valley VNA, has begun the careful rollout of doll therapy among receptive residents and families.

Doll therapy at Valley VNA offers residents the opportunity to hold, care for, or even “adopt” a lifelike doll or stuffed animal. This is because people with Alzheimer’s or dementia often experience distressing feelings of anxiety, anger, depression, and suspicion. Just as psychologist John Bowlby first established in 1969, attachment to an object can serve as an anchor in the midst of uncertainty. When a person with dementia embraces caring for a doll-baby, they are much less likely to experience these feelings of agitation, aggression, or wandering. “Residents love the sense of purpose they have in caring for their babies. They like being a caregiver, too, not just the one receiving care,” Mueller said. She explained there are many group activities each day at Valley VNA, but dolls also provide individual, engaging activity throughout the day instead of periods of sitting, sleeping, or watching TV. And the best part? It’s a holistic approach to wellness that does not require the use of pharmaceuticals to calm an agitated person.

Mueller is aware of some resident and family concerns about the use of doll therapy; namely, that it could be perceived and patronizing or infantilizing an adult with Alzheimer’s or dementia. “We are not saying that our residents are children again,” Mueller said. “We are saying that life has changed, and we can change with it.” When a doll or stuffed animal is introduced to a person who is obviously distressed, it can prevent that person from further decline or retreat. “This gives staff another opportunity to engage with our person; that chance is not lost. Residents can communicate their need for support and affection in a way they cannot otherwise express because of the progression of their disease.”

 

There are currently eight therapeutic dolls at Valley VNA called Pearl’s Memory Babies and several stuffed dogs. In Mueller’s experience, men are more drawn to caring for a pet dog than a baby, but this is not always the case. Pearl’s Memory Babies are not a specific type of doll; rather, they tend to have more lifelike qualities and are weighted to feel more like a real baby. To coincide with the lifelike dolls, residents have access to realistic baby bottles, clothing, and blankets. “Staff help keep the dolls clean and safe,” Mueller said, “and we never force a baby or a pet dog on a person. It’s got to be a good fit, and when it is, it’s a beautiful thing.”