Dolls for Dementia Patients: The Nursing Home That Went Viral

This past Valentine’s Day, a remarkable thing happened in one Louisville, Kentucky nursing home.

After volunteers passed out toy puppies and baby dolls, the residents reacted in ways that were quite remarkable. Photos of these residents went viral, as they expressed peace and joy.

Alzheimer’s Residents Express Joy on Valentine’s Day

One Kentucky resident, Sandy Cambron, began a passion project after losing her mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s. Her doll giveaway, known as Pearl’s Memory Babies, offers dolls to Alzheimer’s patients. The goal is to provide these patients with some level of comfort and joy.

She began using toy cats and dogs to comfort her mother-in-law during her transition into a nursing home. Her name was Pearl and based on her love for animals, the idea was that these types of toys would cheer her up. Unfortunately, they did not.

One day, Sandra offered Pearl a baby doll instead. Immediately, she loved it. Sandra stated that Pearl kept that baby doll by her side until she passed away in 2008. Following her death, the family donated baby dolls for all of the patients living in the nursing home. This good deed honored Pearl, as the baby dolls were given in her memory.

This past Valentine’s Day, after handing out dolls and toy puppies, the response was heartwarming. Men were gently petting the dogs on their lap, while the women cradled the life-size dolls provided to them. Not only did they hold these dolls, but they smiled at their faces and supported their heads.

Although the majority of these patients suffer from severe Alzheimer’s, their connection to these toys was almost immediate. Although research surrounding doll therapy is fairly limited, researchers believe that this type of intervention may benefit some patients living with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s.

Bringing Happiness and Comfort to Alzheimer’s Patients

Although Alzheimer’s patients may not always seem present, the majority struggle with some form of distress. This is why doll therapy is a key area of interest, as it appears to bring joy, comfort, and a sense of purpose to those suffering from this debilitating disease.

In numerous long-term care facilities, dolls are used as a care tool. Being a non-pharmacological intervention, this gesture may reduce the severity of both psychological and behavioral symptoms. It is hypothesized that when a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia holds a doll, this activates a response associated with caregiving, attachment, and emotion.

In one Japanese study, an animal-shaped toy was provided to patients living with severe dementia. It was concluded that most of the patients were interested in the toys. More importantly, these toys were shown to improve happiness and reduce agitation. They also became accustomed to the toys day by day.

If you are a caregiver and would like to try this form of potential therapy, please keep the following tips in mind:

  • Do not force a doll on any individual. Simply provide the doll and allow the patient to approach and hold the doll in their own time.

  • Do not refer to the doll as a doll. Also, provide a crib or somewhere for the baby to go when it is not in use.

  • When purchasing a doll, be mindful of possible sound effects. Avoid dolls that cry out loud, as this can be upsetting for patients.

What About Pet Therapy?

Pets have been shown to improve various behaviors in Alzheimer’s patients. Not only can animals provide emotional support, but they have also been shown to improve the physical health of Alzheimer’s patients. Even when animals are stuffed, Alzheimer’s patients tend to be happier and more communicative, while showcasing fewer negative behaviors.

In 2002, a study was published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, reporting the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. This study was unique in that it focused on the association between fish aquariums and nutritional intake. Overall, sixty-two patients were studied.

After taking baseline nutritional data, a fish aquarium was introduced. Data was then collected daily for two weeks, followed by the weekly collection of data for six weeks. They found that after the researchers introduced the aquarium, nutritional intake increased by 21.1 percent. Not only did patients gain an average of 1.65 pounds, they also required less supplementation.

For more information on how you can actively provide support to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, please refer to the following articles.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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