Baby dolls perform "miracles" for Alzheimer's patients every day. For some they bring back wonderful, nurturing memories and feelings of caring for a small baby, others simply find it comforting to care for another, when their days are mostly spent being cared for by someone else.
There seems to be no end to what a little bit of plastic and paint, molded into the arms of a person with dementia can do. Baby dolls can provide a bridge to socialization and interaction, a tool for communication, or just a soft, snuggly "baby" (real or not), who never cries or corrects them , who just lies there with their adoring eyes looking back.
For those of us "outside" of the disease, giving an Alzheimer's patient a baby doll may seem demeaning or even degrading. Imagine giving a baby doll to a grown adult!
But experience reveals that for a person in the middle or later stages of dementia, one little baby doll can provide an almost infinite number of benefits that only get better from one moment to the next - that perhaps we can only imagine.
A baby doll can:
- Calm someone who is upset;
- Provide endless hours of hugs and smiles;
- Lull a person to sleep;
- Create a distraction from a dangerous, harmful or upsetting event;
- Serve as an attention-getter;
- Provide a tool for social interaction;
- Regenerate warm, nurturing feelings of once again caring for a young child;
- Make it possible for someone, totally dependent upon others, to care for "someone" else.
There are many explanations for the miracles these little "bundles of joy" seem to create, but the truth is that everyone is different. Though each individual's experience appears to be wonderful, each is as different as the person themselves. Some are caring for a "baby", while others are just experiencing once again the childhood pleasures of holding a baby doll.
Here are a few of the stories that family members, healthcare professionals and caregivers have shared with us:
"My sweet MIL has had a baby doll for 2 years now. She loves that baby dolls with a passion you cannot believe. She kisses it constantly, tells it how much she loves it and keeps it with her at all times. At first she told me she knew it wasn't real but that she never felt alone anymore. I still don't know if she thinks it is a real baby. If she wakes in the night she will lay there kissing that baby until she falls asleep again. About two wks ago she pointed at the baby doll's forehead and said 'it's different' and has referred to it as a 'he' ever since (it has always been a 'she'). She doesn't say much anymore and will point and say 'he' and give it a big smack!! This was by far the best thing we ever did for her."
Two ladies at an Alzheimer's care facility were in the later stages of aphasia - despite the staff's best efforts, the words out of their mouths appeared to be nothing more than gibberish, making no sense whatsoever. Sentences were not sentences, phrases were unrelated, words were not words, at least in any language that the staff recalled. Yet these two women would sit on a bench outside with their baby dolls and talk to each other for hours, seemingly understanding every word, on topics of great importance to each other.
We on the outside, may assume they were talking about their babies, motherly topics, etc., But regardless, they were communicating in a common language which apparently the "babies" played no small role!
Here's a story shared by a lady in (we believe) Wyoming: Her mother lived in an Alzheimer's facility. She could no longer speak or communicate her needs or desires to staff - so it seemed.
She carried her baby doll everywhere, every moment of the day. And though time had worn the baby doll's clothes ragged and they were covered with the colorful remains of each day's meals, she was never without that "baby".
Then one day the staff made an unusual observation. The lady would approach them, holding her doll - a little too close, almost thrusting it into their arms. She'd stand there until the staff responded. Then it hit them. Though she was no longer able to speak, when she needed something - be it anything from attention to a meal to a visit to the bathroom - this is what she would do. Perhaps she was saying, "My baby needs to eat" or "My child needs to go to the bathroom," but all the while it was her way of saying "I need something."
While visiting a dementia unit, a resident approached with a doll buggy. Before she was within earshot I was told that she considered her doll to be her real baby. So when she got closer, I asked her if I could see her baby. She replied, "This isn't a baby - it is a doll." The staff was astonished. I commented on the cuteness of her doll and asked her how long she had had it. Her reply, "Since it was born!"
Kathy Hoestra - Alzheimer's Association