Wendy McHaney writes a column about senior and elderly issues for the Victoria Advocate.

Many years ago, my girls and I went Christmas caroling with several families from our church at some smaller Alzheimer’s patient living facilities. At one facility, we noticed that many of the residents had baby dolls, even cribs and changing tables for the dolls. My daughters were very intrigued by this since they were at the baby doll stage, and they admired the well-appointed baby doll nursery. I was intrigued by it, too, and wondered if the residents enjoyed “playing” with the dolls because they were lost in the past of when they were young and played with dolls. But the director explained to me that it’s actually because these residents are mothers and taking care of babies was a very happy time in their lives, and the dolls seem to bring them back to the time of early parenthood and helps make them feel needed and useful.

Doll therapy has become very popular at memory care facilities across the country. It has been found to help ease anxiety, agitation, and aggression. Not only can the dolls lessen stress, they can also improve communication and reduce the need for psychotropic medication. But the therapy is somewhat controversial. Some believe that the dolls are demeaning and infantilize seniors and take away their dignity. Others feel the doll replicates a security blanket, which can mask behavioral issues. Detractors aside, one study completed in 2007 found that doll therapy could be used to increase positive behaviors, concluding that it is an effective approach in caring for seniors with dementia.

Facilities that utilize doll therapy typically give the residents the option of holding, changing or dressing the dolls, without distinguishing whether they are real babies or toys. Caregivers can also use the dolls to start conversations about the resident’s own children or grandchildren.

When considering using doll therapy, be sure to communicate the purpose of the doll for anyone else who may be providing care. It is also important not to refer to the doll as a doll and never force the doll. Be sure not to purchase a doll that cries out loud as this could be upsetting. Also, consider including a bassinet or changing table as the act of caring for the doll can provide a sense of purposefulness.

But keep in mind that each person has had different life experiences and memories. One enrichment director who purchased a doll for a particularly combative resident found that while initially the resident’s manner became gentle and mild while holding the doll, the resident didn’t want it for long. When the director began the move away, the resident said, “Don’t leave this with me, it’s your problem.” Turns out the resident liked the doll as long as she didn’t think she was being given the responsibility.

SOURCES: Gorman, Anna, “Doll Therapy May Help Calm People with Dementia;” Sauer, Alissa, “Pros and Cons of Doll therapy for Alzheimer’s,” alzheimers.net

Wendy McHaney is a certified senior adviser and the owner and director of operations of Senior Helpers. For more information about Senior Helpers, visit seniorhelpers.com/victoria.

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