Dementia, including Alzheimer's, by nature reverses the progression of the brain's development in elderly adults. Many patients suffering in the middle to late stages of the disease are indeed child-like by nature as a result, so the effect that doll therapy has on them is quite striking. It is an effective therapy for improving dementia patient's quality of life. It is also one of the easiest.
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According to a study at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, dolls have healing effects on individuals with dementia, and according to the Alzheimer's Association, this is a method that has become widely used in facilities as well as in homes and with hospice care. This is due to the beneficial results in communication, behaviour and overall happiness in patients that the practice has demonstrated.
Dementia patients with dolls tend to be more active and more focused when they are carrying or handling the dolls. It also helps with communication, focus and an improved attitude towards other residents and care takers, and it makes patients less agitated during routine care where otherwise they might become angry or difficult. There is also the obvious aspect of keeping patients hands busy, making it less likely that they may do themselves harm. Family members have used the term "miracle" when describing the dolls' impact.
The theory is that holding a doll is like holding a baby. It brings individuals back to a time in early parenthood when they were secure in caring for an infant. This nurturing aspect of the therapy does not only affect women with dementia, but men as well. They coddle the "babies" and speak to them, reassure the dolls and care for them which translates to a greater sense of well being. Older adults, including those with dementia fear having control or independence taken from them. When caring for the dolls this insecurity evaporates.
A teddy bear helped one man in Durham, North Carolina stop chronically biting on his fingers; when mittens wouldn't work, a teddy bear did. A woman gave her 90 year old sister a doll. She immediately looked at the doll, smiled and said "Oh, Darling, look at the baby." It was thought that she could no longer speak, or even smile. She always had the doll with her afterward. Accounts vary on the effects slightly. One man became less active; however, this in itself was a positive change the patient "...stood, picking wallpaper all day." previously.
Doll therapy has allowed for a new level of communication between patients and caregivers, where caregivers can discover more about the patients history from the patients themselves, or family members can "find" their loved ones again, in some cases, even if only for a few minutes. It can even change cycles that are undesirable, lessening the need for sedatives like lorezepam to modify behaviour or keep patients safe while restoring some of their independence.
Dolls come in a variety, like the people whom they affect so profoundly: boys and girls, black, white and Asian.The therapeutic dolls are quite lifelike and there are ten models available. It is even recommended by some sources to dress the dolls in real baby clothes, get them a crib; lending to the treatment of the dolls as real children. Many assisted care facilities also accept donations of the dolls.
Place the doll in an obvious place where "the patient can find it". In this way they will not feel as though it is something that they are being made to do or that they are being stripped of their power and independence. If the teddy bear or doll does not work, remove it and introduce it later. Re-introduce daily if needed.
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- Mary Ann Urbashich| Associate Director | Alzheimer's Association Green-Field Library | 225 N Michigan Ave, FL 17 | Chicago, IL 60601
- Research letters on "Pilot Study on the use of dolls with patients with dementia"
- "Nursing" magazine; To Find a Soul; Joy Baily, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sylvia Herweyer; July 1992
- Dolls for Alzhiemer's