The Positive Impact of Dementia Dolls and Doll Therapy

Life-like dolls which resemble human babies, or soft cuddly toy animals, when given to those with dementia with the aim of achieving therapeutic effects, are broadly known as dementia dolls. Dementia dolls have been shown to be hugely beneficial to those with dementia, most notably in the later stages, and as such, their use is now loosely termed doll therapy. This isn’t simply ‘playing’ with a toy, but has a valuable purpose. Let’s explore more.

The benefits of dementia dolls and doll therapy

Various studies have been undertaken concerning dementia dolls and their benefits. More studies need to be done, but broadly speaking dementia dolls bring a number of worthwhile benefits, if used appropriately:

·         Enjoyment and soothing

Those with dementia can find life confusing and bewildering. Many get simple pleasure from holding and caring for a dementia doll. It can help them feel secure, remembering a time when they were a parent of a young baby, and it feels reassuring. It brings up feelings of affection and value. They have been shown to bring calm to distressed or anxious individuals with dementia, and that is hugely valuable. Indeed, the studies consistently show that increased happiness levels are strongly associated with doll therapy.

·         Connections

It is, unfortunately, quite common for those with dementia to feel disconnected from the relationships around them. By caring for a doll or soft toy, the individual with dementia is helped to connect with those around them more easily. It enables a sense of purpose and many believe that this opens up more vitality and increased activity levels.

·         Engagement

The evidence points strongly to showing that dementia dolls are particularly beneficial for those who are struggling to engage with others. Communication difficulties are one of the common symptoms of dementia. Through interaction with the doll it appears that communication is facilitated.

·         Reduced anxiety

Both improved mood and reduced anxiety are benefits of doll therapy. There are various reasons why the use of dolls is anxiety-alleviating. Alongside this, additional benefits include decreased agitation and fewer ‘negative verbal expressions’.

·         Decreased wandering

Perhaps due to the sense of purpose conveyed by caring for the life-like doll or toy, there is evidence to show that dementia dolls reduce the wandering that is a common symptom of dementia. Similarly, there is a decrease in obsessions.

In addition to the studied benefits of dementia dolls and doll therapy, there are numerous anecdotal reports regarding how dolls have brought comfort, joy, purpose and calm to loved ones living with dementia.

Indeed, the British Journal of Nursing has stated that doll therapy has “shown positive effects for people with dementia without the use of medications.”

Why does doll therapy work?

It’s likely that various factors combine to explain why dementia dolls can be so beneficial. It brings about a sense of familiarity with a positive and purposeful life stage from an era when memories are potentially more accessible. Caring for a doll flips the role of carer and care recipient, and that gives someone meaning, value and usefulness. It’s a positive focus.

Touch is also important for the wellbeing of us all, but has been shown to be very beneficial for those with dementia. Caring for a baby-like doll or animal-like toy can mimic the tactile touch that all humans need, bringing comfort and soothing.

How to introduce and use dementia dolls effectively

There are no set rules to doll therapy although it is important to respect the individual’s dignity. Some suggestions for successfully introducing a doll or cuddly toy to someone you care for who has dementia include:

  • Make the introductions slowly. Simply leave the doll or toy somewhere nearby and allow the individual to lead if they want to interact. Let them find it and pick it up in their own time.
  • Provide a small selection of different baby-like or animal-like dolls for your loved one to pick from.
  • If your loved one is showing an interest in the doll, use it as a way to engage and connect. Refer to the doll as she, he or they, rather than ‘it’, and ask questions. If communication through questions is difficult, you can make positive observations, such as “what a beautiful baby” or “what lovely smooth fur”.
  • Follow their lead and go along with their approach. For example, if they view the doll as their baby let them and don’t argue that it’s not real. Alternatively, if they view it as a doll, respect this and interact accordingly.
  • Be aware that if the individual with dementia begins to view the doll as real and their responsibility, which is an often positive outcome, there may be times when they get anxious or distressed about the ‘baby’ and reassurance of where they are and that they are being cared for might be needed.
  • Be open-minded. Doll therapy can be hugely beneficial but it’s also not for everyone. There are other therapies and interventions that can be used, especially by experienced care givers such as those in our specialist dementia care homes, to help improve quality of life.

Concerns about dementia dolls

Whilst the evidence shows that dementia dolls and doll therapy can bring a wide number of benefits, dementia dolls aren’t without controversy. If you’re considering introducing a doll to your loved one, it is worth being aware of these common concerns, so that it goes smoothly.

Some people don’t like to see an older individual with a doll or stuffed toy, feeling it demeans and patronises them, and treats them like a child. This is why it is essential to be led by the individual being cared for and what they want. It can be worth explaining the potential benefits of dementia dolls to reluctant family members so that everyone is supportive and there isn’t the creation of situations that could cause distress (e.g. one family member asserting that the doll isn’t real when the individual with dementia thinks it is).

Others have concerns about how attached their loved one may become to the doll and the risks this brings if the doll is lost, touched by others, or interferes with activities of daily living. There may be concerns that the individual neglects their own needs whilst caring for the doll, for example, giving them their food. This situation can usually be managed with empathy and appropriate awareness.

Where can I get a dementia doll?

There’s nothing unique about a dementia doll. A child-appropriate life-like doll or stuffed toy from a high street retailer is all you need. It’s safe and inexpensive, and doesn’t involve medication, so is often something worth considering. It’s not for everyone, but if you think a dementia doll may help, speak to your loved one’s caregivers and arrange a plan together to give it a try.