The Positive Effect of Therapy Dolls on Alzheimer’s Patients

alzheimer's calm joy doll therapy nancy wurtzel

Outgoing and highly social, my mother loved to play endless card games, take shopping trips, visit relatives and tell family stories to anyone who would listen. She also had a saying for every occasion. “Well, I’ll be darned!” was one of her favorites, especially when she was surprised, excited or just plain happy.

Mom’s personality began to change about the time she turned 85. Although these changes were subtle at first, over time they became more noticeable.

[Read: ‘The Long Hello’ — An Alzheimer’s Memoir Worth Reading]

One day, alone in her kitchen, I pulled open the pantry doors and out fell a huge stack of plastic containers, some with dried, smelly food stuck to the bottoms. Upon further investigation, I found hundreds of containers and even more mismatched covers. Thinking I was helping, I tossed them all in the recycling bin, emptied the bin and tidied up the pantry. To my surprise, when Mom learned what I had done, she became distraught, yelling and accusing me of being a horrible daughter.

Winning had also become an obsession. If the two of us played a card game, I had to make sure Mom won, or she would sulk like a child. Bingo, always one her favorite pastimes, soon became contentious as well, with Mom frequently complaining the game was rigged and her friends cheated.

[Read: For Caregivers — Understanding Who Is Control]

The hoarding and occasional flashes of anger were certainly out of character. Equally disturbing was Mom’s growing struggle to convey her thoughts. She would begin telling me something, but then couldn’t finish what she wanted to convey, often giving up in frustration with an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders.

The eventual diagnosis was Alzheimer’s, the disease that would eventually rob Mom of almost everything.

As the years wore on, my mom’s world grew smaller and smaller. She began to withdraw from socializing and eventually stopped trying to have meaningful interactions. After visiting her, I’d often shed some tears and wonder, ‘What could I do to bring more joy and contentment into her life?’

It was time to try something new.

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I’d read about doll therapy for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. The premise is simple: Introduce a soft-bodied, realistic baby doll to a person with memory loss and see how the person reacts. Many women — but some men as well — will enjoy rocking and cuddling the doll. A smaller number bond closely with their doll and adopt it as their own “baby.” In some cases, dolls have even been credited with calming people who have severe agitation as a result of their disease.

On the other hand, not every person with memory loss can make a connection with a therapy doll. While Mom had always loved babies, at this point in her life she might view the doll as a nuisance or even a burden.

While I certainly didn’t want to create more challenges for my mom, I also felt compelled to help ease her isolation and obvious sadness. I decided to give the therapy doll a try.

[Read: Angels for Alzheimer’s in Sand and Snow]

When I handed Mom the soft-swaddled bundle, I could see she was instantly captivated.  With watery eyes and a sweet smile, she murmured, “Well, I’ll be darned.”

That little phrase made me laugh and it conveyed so much. Those four words told me that deep inside, on some level, my mom was still there.

Mom and Baby Doll, as we dubbed her, became inseparable. Kissing, cooing and caring for Baby Doll gave Mom great joy and a new purpose. When I would come to visit, we’d sit together on the couch admiring the doll. Sometimes I’d hold and rock Baby Doll while Mom looked on approvingly and hummed a nameless tune.

The change in my mother was nothing short of amazing.

[Read: Why I Volunteer to Visit People With Alzheimer’s]

People would often ask me if Mom believed the doll was a real baby. I wasn’t sure, but it made no difference. Baby Doll provided Mom a way to show love and affection, something that is important at every stage of life. In return, the little doll gave new purpose to a mother who was nearing the end of life.

Late last year, when she was in the final stages of the disease, Mom moved into my home. Under hospice care, she died a few weeks later with Baby Doll, her constant companion, cradled under her chin.

Like most Alzheimer’s caregiving experiences, mine was often filled with feelings of frustration and sadness. It is a long, difficult journey. However, on that journey there was also laughter and glimpses of pure joy. Looking back, Baby Doll was often at the center of those happy moments. The little doll was such a simple idea, yet her healing power was remarkable.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest essay]

Today, Baby Doll is wrapped in a fresh pink blanket and rests comfortably on the bed in my guest room. Whenever I look at her, I can’t help smile and think, “Well, I’ll be darned.”

I know Mom would approve.


Join Maria Shriver’s Campaign to Wipe Out Alzheimer’s by heading to wipeoutalzheimers.org.

{Image credit: Gratisography}

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