Dementia dolls are growing in popularity as a therapeutic aid to help people living with dementia.
Although not scientifically proven, there are many anecdotal reports that dementia dolls can be a source of comfort, soothe agitation, and provide sensory stimulation.
In this article we will look into dementia doll therapy, and how it can be used for people with dementia.
Here’s a summary of what we’ll cover:
- Dementia dolls can be a safe and medication-free way to soothe a person experiencing agitation because of dementia.
- People in later stages of dementia can find dolls particularly soothing as cognition in other areas reduces.
- Doll therapy is not scientifically tested, however there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that it helps some people.
- Dementia doll therapy is not suitable for every person with dementia.
What is dementia doll therapy?
There are different types of dementia care available and people with dementia may try many types of therapy.
Each therapy may benefit people slightly differently, or not at all.
It’s all up to each individual, and what suits and helps them to live their best life.
These therapies aid people with dementia to either slow the cognitive decline, or to enhance their daily routine.
For instance, sensory stimulation therapy aims to engage the senses and use them to bring back positive memories and associations.
Music therapy can fulfil a similar purpose and helps people connect socially with those around them using music or song.
Dementia doll therapy is more individual and less of a group activity than some other therapies.
What are dementia dolls used for?
As the condition develops, dementia can cause people to withdraw and become isolated.
Communication can become harder for a person with dementia and as a result they may have less desire for social contact.
This can increase agitation, isolation and loneliness.
Dementia doll therapy aims to provide an ease or a distraction from these issues.
People with dementia are generally better able to manage their emotions and communication when in a relaxed state.
For example it can be calming to hold the doll or soft toy. The activity can provide a sense of purpose, if they feel they need to care for the doll.
Just holding the doll can be very pleasurable and relaxing, providing sensory stimulation.
Dementia dolls: more than just child’s play
Dementia doll therapy is more than just playing with a toy. Its therapeutic benefits include:
- Promotes soothing and calming responses
- Provides a sense of purpose
- Encourages communications
- Sensory stimulation through contact and touch
- Evocates fond memories
How are dementia dolls helpful?
Caring for a doll or soft toy can remind people of happy memories when their own children were small.
A soft toy might also remind them of a beloved pet.
If they don’t have children, they may still have happy memories of the children of friends and relations.
A person with dementia may just be fond of babies or pets, or like the feeling of holding or caring for something.
It is best not to assume that a person will or won’t like a dementia doll or soft toy based on their past.
Many types of people find great comfort holding a doll or toy in their arms.
What are the downsides of doll therapy?
Some people with dementia might not like the thought of having a doll, pet, or a ‘baby’ to look after.
They might consider that they are being patronised or infantilized.
This is often also true of the family and friends of the person with dementia.
If they don’t fully understand the therapeutic benefit, they may feel insulted on behalf of the person.
Participation from the family
A person who takes on a caring role for their doll might need those around them to be invested in caring for it.
If they are not, this could provoke anxiety or agitation around the care of the doll.
The person might also become withdrawn or distracted from other activities or outings.
They may consider that they have to care for the doll as a priority, so then can’t do other activities.
It might be helpful to appoint a ‘doll sitter’ to avoid any distress around this.
Distress may occur for the family of the person when they see how attached they are to the doll.
This can be upsetting as the person loses other aspects of cognition but remembers that they are committed to their doll.
Always have a replica available
Breaking, damaging or losing the doll can also be very unsettling to a person who considers it their baby or emotional crutch.
It can be upsetting even to someone who uses the doll as a comfort aid. It is helpful to have a replica as backup safely stowed nearby in case of this happening.
A doll that cries or has bodily functions might prove a downside, as the person might find this upsetting or agitating.
Dementia dolls are otherwise very lifelike, preferably with eyes that remain open at all times. This should avoid any concern from the person about the doll being deceased or unwell.
How can I introduce dementia dolls?
Try leaving a dementia doll out on a chair or piece of furniture for them to discover at leisure.
Let the person find the doll for themselves when they are ready.
You might try offering a choice of dolls or soft toys to gauge their preference.
Leave it somewhere easy to find, but not too obvious in case it is startling and seems out of place.
Be sure to let the person pick it up in their own time. Don’t push it if they show no interest.
Try putting it away if the response is not initially favourable.
You can always try again later on. Remember, some people will never be interested in a doll or soft toy regardless of how progressed their dementia grows.
If communication is difficult for the person, you can lead the way to connect.
Try making observations about the doll or soft toy to see how the person responds.
You might find they can communicate more easily about the doll than other topics.
You can try to prompt memories for the person. For example: ‘the doll looks like x when they were small’, or ‘this fur is just the same colour as your pet x’.
If you’re looking for an online community of people living with dementia and their carers then you can try Dementia Talking Point run by the Alzheimer’s Society.
You might also like to try the best books on dementia for first person accounts and expert views.
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