Mar 19, 2018

Dementia Doll Therapy: Viral Post Reignites Debate

When an older person has dementia, and are struggling with anxiety, depression and agitation, it can be heartbreaking for their loved ones to witness.

This is where alternative therapies can be introduced to help the older person cope with their symptoms. And one such therapy that has recently been brought back to the community’s attention is doll therapy.

Doll therapy is where dolls of babies or plush animal toys are given to people with dementia to “care for”.

To people with dementia, they believe that the doll is a living creature that needs them – which can trigger past feelings of care they have given to their own children and pets.

And because they are only dolls and toys, it is less of an issue if they drop the doll, and they certainly cannot make any mistakes that will affect them.

A recent viral post of a couple delivering dolls to residents at a nursing home in Louisville, Kentucky has stated the “doll therapy” debate once again.

The couple, Sandy and Wayne Cambron, are seen distributing dolls from their project “Pearl’s Memory Babies” which is in memory of Wayne’s late mother who died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

Sandy’s mother-in-law loved her own doll and kept it by her side until she passed.

For years, Cambron’s family had been visiting the home with dolls in Pearl’s memory.

“It’s overwhelming,” Cambron told TODAY. “It’s just great to know that it’s comforting them.”

We decided to do this in memory of [Pearl]. Her baby was her little buddy and her companion, it gave her lots of comfort,’ Cambron said. ‘We knew how much it meant to her and we realized what she was going through.

‘We saw the other Alzheimer’s patients and they just became so precious to us, we want to try to make their last days as pleasant as we can.’

However, doll therapy also receives its fair share of criticisms too, with claims that doll therapy strips older people of their dignity.

Some people believe that by giving older people dolls, it is actually “infantilising” the people with dementia.

They believe that it the therapy essentially treats the older people like children when they are actually adults, and is rather condescending.

And it’s not just carers and family members who do not like the therapy. Some older people act rather negatively towards doll therapy – they may see the toy as a “dead” baby, as they struggle to tell the it is not real.

While other older people have been reported to dislike the toy and reject or throw them away.

However, it should be noted that, like all therapies, what works for some people will not necessarily benefit others. Each person and their diagnosis – as well as how they respond to therapies – is completely unique.

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  1. of Course, Doll therapy works for some and not for others, you need to understand where the person living with dementia is in their mind, at times the memories they have are when they were caring for babies and pets. I have personally seen people calm and become happy because they feel needed and loved again. and this is not to say family do not love their relatives, it is just where the person is at the time. If this therapy calms and satisfies People living with dementia for some time during their conditions progress it would be not very person centred to take the therapy away from them.

    1. people do who work in the facilities at times, especially if they feel they have not instigated it and want to take ownership of programs will dismiss ideas that others bring to it. Not very helpful for the person who is experiencing the joy of caring despite their disability they just become the pawn of other people’s own personal judgement instead of being person centred care.

  2. I’ve had great success with doll therapy, especially with Holocaust survivors in the Jewish community here in Sydney, who have been traumatized by memories of having their infant children ripped from their arms by German Nazis. Clients who have suffered miscarriages early in life can also benefit, as the therapy requires the older woman with dementia to reframe a tragic emotional memory and re-live it as a healing re-enactment. I must say, you don’t, as a therapist, just put the doll in the residents’ arms and walk away.

    You introduce the doll, allow the resident to name the baby, and allow the resident to bond with the doll on a sensory basis – with word-prompting, by asking questions in order to invoke a meaningful response: “What does your baby need?” :What is the baby’s favourite food?” “Does your baby feel happy?” “What does a baby’s skin smell like?” “What does a baby’s skin feel like to touch?” “How do you know what the baby needs?”

  3. I have worked with People with dementia for over 25 yrs and have seen Doll therapy or if you prefer Child representational Therapy be very effective in calming agitated people with dementia both male and female. A father of nine who had a child die not long after birth began caring for the doll when he found it in the cradle calling it by the name of the baby who had died. A mother who through domestic violence left her 3 older children and took the youngest as a babe in arms away and did not reconnect with the older children again was in the aged care facility happily looking after 2 dolls and doing for them what every mother does.

  4. The only way to know if doll therapy will work is to just let the person with dementia try it. Give them access to a doll or soft cuddly toy. Heaven only knows what these poor people are going through. Too many people just throw in their 2 cents worth and think they have all the answers. To us it may seem as though it’s condescending and infantilising. But I can tell you now after looking after my mother for the past 5 years with this insidious disease, giving her a doll has brought untold comfort and calmness into her otherwise broken life and brain. She has raised 7 children and been the oldest of 10 so has had plenty of opportunities to nurture a child. It’s the most natural thing for her to do…or for most people for that matter. It doesn’t matter what it looks like to us. What matters is finding the thing that will bring them comfort. That’s all. Nothing else matters. And if people think it’s infantilising them, what exactly do you suppose is going on in the brain of a person with dementia? It’s a brain that is operating in reverse. That’s why they call it the second childhood. I’ve watched my mother go back in time from a 95 year old all the way back to a small child in her early childhood. The thing that has worked best to comfort her has been for me to meet her where she’s at. And it’s a different place each day. Sometimes she’s been a newly married woman, sometimes a teenager and sometimes a little kid. So sometimes it’s coloring in, or playing with balloons or listening to music or playing with baby dolls. But I just give her whatever comforts her. The doll works wonders 99% of the time. We wouldn’t take away a doll from a little child so why take it away from an elderly person who’s brain has become like that of a child?

  5. I believe that many people are delivering care through the lens and frame of their own beliefs and values rather than looking through the person they are caring for eyes.
    I’ve seen doll therapy work with some and not with others. I’ve seen one lady who will love the doll one minute and the next give it back because she doesn’t want it any more. It’s about being receptive to the needs of those we care for.

  6. people with Alzheimer s don’t generally have much dignity anyway. Cuddling a doll will generally just make them look nice and caring

  7. As an RN, BSN and a geriatric nurse the Dementia Doll Therapy is high on my list. As a Alzheimer’s nurse it is unreal how lonely even dementia patient’s get at times and need this option.“Pearl’s Memory Babies” are the answer to a patient’s prayer especially when they receive no visitors…EVER. Even a teddy bear or stuffed animals.


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