Doll Therapy and Dementia

I was drawn to becoming an occupational therapist so that I could help people explore meaning in their life.  What that entails varies across their lifespan.  For what is meaningful to a person changes over time. It’s  dependent on lots of things: the different roles that they adopt,  their culture  and belief system,  the state of their physical and mental health, their interests at any given time, who they spend time with and where they live.  If I am defined by what I do I am a very different person to the thirty two year old city dwelling,  married but childless accountant of twenty years ago who spent all her free time backpacking or the twelve year old tomboy two decades earlier who was bike crazy and loved to pretend to be a fashion designer.   Both of them might be surprised if they met the person that I’ve become today. a full-time working single mother of a teenager who lives by the sea and loves to write, dance, meditate and roam around in an ageing motorhome.  At this moment in my life  I cannot imagine that spending time with a doll would give my life meaning.   But all that may change.  What if I have dementia further down the line?
Doll Therapy:  A Personal Perspective
It was quite a few years ago now that I heard about the idea of giving dolls to people with dementia.  In all honesty I was horrified.   My reasoning behind this was that I didn’t think that providing toys to older people was age appropriate.  Surely it was demeaning and would expose them to ridicule?  But since then I’ve heard stories about people with dementia gaining comfort and a sense of purpose from having a doll or cuddly toy.   It’s suggested that they can meet needs around attachment and provide the person with an opportunity to be nurturing.   Both men and women have these needs and so this type of therapy isn’t confined to females.  It occured to me that it might be even harder for others to view this  as acceptable for men.  But maybe what others think isn’t so important when an activity seems to have so much potential to provide personal meaning.  Who am I, or any of us, to judge?
Although a systematic review of research literature found studies which suggested doll therapy has a positive effect on behaviour its overall findings were inconclusive.  It did however acknowledge that this was a safe comfort measure.  I’ve said before that people with dementia can be problematic from an academic perspective.  They aren’t easily pigeon holed and so don’t form a nice neat group for research purposes.  So doll therapy is yet another of those activities to be added to the list of things in the dementia caregiving repertoire.   Not proven to work for everyone but you never know until you try something whether it will suit a particular individual.
Tips Around Providing Dolls
  • Family member and those involved in a person’ care need to have an understanding of why doll therapy is being used.  This will help them overcome their prejudices,  look beyond age stereotypes and appreciate its value.
  • Empathy dolls, those sold for the specific purpose of being therapeutic can be expensive.  Can you gauge whether a person might benefit from having dolls or cuddly toys by ‘borrowing’  some to leave around where they live.  Or can you take them to an environment such as a home of a young grandchild or a shop where there are dolls and cuddly animals in abundance?  This can test the general idea of whether providing one of their own is a good idea.  It may also help guide specific choices around their individual preferences.
  • Dolls and cuddly toys  can provide sensory benefits  Weighted dolls may provide proprioceptive feedback,  giving the person a greater sense of where their body parts are in space.  Fur, hair and soft touch skin can be soothing to touch and stroke.
  • Some people might be distressed if a doll’s eyes are closed. I’ve read a story of a people who thought that they were holding a dead baby.  Dolls are available where the eyes remain open that might prevent this misperception.
  • If a person forms a very strong attachment to a doll or toy and lives in a residential setting be mindful of the fact that another person taking a toy could cause distress and aggression due to the strong attachment.  There may need to be care planning around this.
  • Dolls that cry , talk or play music could be more likely to cause confusion or distress and it may be best to avoid these.
  • If the person believes that the doll is a real baby then those who support them should not contradict this viewpoint but instead enter into their reality.
Remember that what gives us meaning is a dynamic process.  So it is for people with dementia.   Doll therapy can become meaningful to a person who hasn’t  previously shown  interest or might need to be excluded because it becomes distressing or redundant.

  1. Winnie o neill on 11th July 2018 at 8:19 pm

    Thank you , I enjoyed reading your piece on Doll Teraphy, I started a programme two years ago called Billys dolls of comfort, we collect unwanted dolls give them beautiful makeovers ,then we bring them into nursing homes for clients with dementia, We have had the privilege to see first hand the joy and comfort the doll can bring to the client . You are so right not all clients take to the doll , Dolls that have closed eyes or cry can upset the client , when visiting the nursing homes we bring different dolls ,for different stages of Dementia , all in all we see good results, but there still is a stigma attached to the doll and can be quite upsetting for a family member looking at the parents talking and loving their doll .

    • Julie Cole on 20th July 2018 at 10:15 am

      I know about your work and it what inspired me to write the piece. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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