The Doll Therapy Debate…

When it comes down to it, people will either love the idea of doll therapy, and embrace the benefits, or they will argue that the use of dolls in dementia care is demeaning and patronizing.

If you have yet to decide which side of the debate you’d like to firmly plant your feet on, then hopefully I can be of some assistance.

I want you to imagine yourself in the busiest, and yet most fulfilling stage of many peoples lives…parenthood.

When your children are young, it feels like every waking moment of your day is spent doing something for someone else. You sometimes find yourself daydreaming about the idea of simply having an afternoon to yourself, or maybe just a shower without an audience for once.

You find yourself being asked for help, knowledge, support, and advice on a regular basis, and as exhausting as this stage is, it also makes you feel incredibly valued and fulfilled.

All of a sudden, you blink, and those young children have grown up. They are starting families of their own, and now you are regularly being asked to look after your grandchildren. You’ve entered a beautiful new stage in your life, and you are happy to help out, whenever you can.

Fast forward, and your grandchildren are now entering adulthood. You notice that you are gradually getting less and less visitors at home, and while this saddens you, you understand that life gets busy.

Your grandchild gives birth to your first great-grandchild, which is really exciting for you, because you haven’t been asked to babysit for some time now, and you miss it.

The time comes for another family gathering, and you can’t wait to get your hands on the wonderful new addition.

You see them from across the room, and start beaming with pride at the thought that without you, this room full of beautiful people would not even exist.

You make your way over to see the new baby, and when you reach your arms out to take your turn holding him, your family pulls the baby back instinctively.

You are told that the baby suddenly needs to be changed, but it’s clear that this is a lie.

You don’t understand.

Is it possible that they do not trust you, of all people, with a baby? You are the most qualified caregiver in the room, you think to yourself.

Later, your family drops you off at ‘home’; a long term care facility that you now live in.

The pride that you had been beaming with earlier has vanished.

You start to feel sad, lonely, and discouraged.

You have a nurturing instinct engrained in your soul, desperately wanting to be put to use.

You regularly see visitors come in and out of the home with their young children.

It tugs at your heart, every time.

Months, maybe even years pass, and you become more and more disoriented; often confused as to where you are, and why.

One day, as you are making your way through the halls, you come across a little cradle.

You see what you believe to be a little baby who’s eyes are just slightly open; she must just be waking up.

You reach in, and lift the ‘baby’ up to your chest, as you would have so many times with your own children. The ‘baby’ seems extremely content in your loving embrace, which fills you with pride.

You spot a rocking chair nearby, and sit down to gently rock with your tiny companion. A feeling of joy washes over you. You find yourself quietly singing songs from years ago that your children would fall asleep to.

You hear yourself let out a gentle sigh of relief, while feeling relaxed, peaceful, and fulfilled for the first time in ages.

The other residents start to head to the dining room, when a friendly woman, that you faintly recognize, approaches you.

“I can’t thank you enough for keeping an eye on her for me. How about I take her now, so that you can head into the dining room to have your lunch,” she says.

With a smile from ear to ear, you tell her it was no trouble at all, and hand the ‘baby’ back to her.

You head into the other room, beaming with pride, and feeling wonderful.

Now, depending on your stance on the topic of doll therapy, you would likely have witnessed one of two different scenes while observing the situation described above.

Scene One:

A well respected woman (who is battling with dementia) was encouraged, or tricked into engaging in childlike ‘play’. This was done in an open setting, where visitors or other residents may have witnessed her behaving in a manner that would have previously embarrassed her.

 Scene Two:

A well respected, lonely, mother of 5 (who is living with Dementia) was given an opportunity to independently interact with a therapeutic life station, where she made the choice to engage in doll therapy.

As a result, the resident was able to fulfill an emotional need that was going unmet, resulting in her experiencing feelings of comfort, confidence, and purpose.

During the time that the resident was engaging in doll therapy, she refrained from wandering the halls, exit seeking, or needing emotional support from a staff member.

Once you have witnessed, firsthand, the benefits of doll therapy, it is difficult not to argue in it’s favour.

Doll therapy may not work for every resident, and this is why it should be presented as an opportunity, but never forced on someone.

The residents that are drawn to the dolls are the ones that will benefit from this form of therapy.

However, I can certainly empathise with someone when they express their concerns regarding doll therapy.

To those people:

I hear you, and I get it. By no means do I intend to dismiss your concerns, or hesitation toward the use of dolls in dementia care.

The reason that I advocate for this form of therapy is that I have seen it work.

I have seen it comfort a lonely, weeping woman.

I have seen a very agitated man transform within minutes into a gentle fatherly figure, making sweet sounds and faces at one of our therapy dolls.

I have witnessed it with my own eyes, and I have felt it in my soul, as I’ve observed the joy radiating from a resident who is being reached through this form of therapy.

I have seen both men and women smile their sincerest smiles while looking into the tiny realistic faces of the dolls we use. The type of smile that only children can bring out of us.

This therapy helps people, it comforts people, it soothes people, and it improves quality of life.

For someone living with dementia, every day can be a struggle.

My thought on the topic is that if something as simple as a doll can substantially improve a persons quality of life, bring them joy, as well as reduce frustration and loneliness, then the question we need to be asking ourselves, is not “Why doll therapy?” but instead, “Why not doll therapy?”


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