Oh, baby! Doll therapy gets real

Many memory care units use dolls to engage residents with dementia, primarily women. Dressing or “feeding” a doll can reach back into the resident’s memory when child-rearing was a primary activity. Having a doll to hold or cuddle can be a successful tool for calming agitation, soothing sundowning or redirecting confusion. For those who have lost the ability to verbalize, a realistic doll can stimulate the brain to hum, sing or even speak.

“Brooklyn Faith,” a lifelike doll created by artist Lisa Lampe

Thanks to advancements in pliable vinyl and a burgeoning group of “reborn artists,” dolls are now available that look and feel just like the real thing. Each doll is unique, and some even have realistic “boo boos” or birthmarks. Prices range from about $100 to nearly $1,000.

“Lavender Sage,” a lifelike doll created by artist Nichole Rotko

The vinyl bodies are filled with glass beads and polyfill that approximate the weight and plump feel of a baby’s body. The hair, eyelashes and eyebrows are rooted by hand. High-tech heat-bonded pigments allow the artists to create stunningly realistic skin tones that won’t wear or chip off.

Doll therapy isn’t for everyone. Some residents can be very receptive, while others may be unengaged or annoyed. For some with dementia, the effect may be a bit too real. Many of the lifelike dolls are crafted as sleeping infants, but for residents with cognitive decline, the closed eyes could cause residents to wonder why they can’t “wake them up.” Some residents may become frightened or angry at being given an unwanted responsibility or can panic if they can’t locate the doll. However, for many residents, lifelike dolls can provide a welcome respite form agitation and fearfulness, especially at night.

For providers who want to begin or expand a doll therapy program, it’s best to introduce the idea slowly to ascertain whether the resident will be receptive to the technique.  Alzheimers.net offers several tips for introducing doll therapy:

  • Allow residents to engage with the doll on their own time instead of forcing it on them.
  • Provide familiar or logical accessories, such as a bassinet or cradle and a blanket
  • Communicate to the family why the doll is being used and how its calming and engagement effects can be helpful to their loved one.
  • Never call the doll a doll.
  • Avoid dolls that make noises, since it could confuse or frighten the resident, especially at night.
“Penelope Rose,” by Lisa Lampe
“Jason Alexander,” a cloth-body doll
by Nichole Rotko














Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles