Therapy Dolls for Older Adults with Memory Loss: Loving, Nurturing, and Taking Care With Purpose

September 17, 2020
 

One of our most popular social media posts this summer was this one. It featured this endearing photo of Richard, a resident at our Riverside Lodge Memory Care community, tenderly enjoying some relaxing time with a realistic therapy doll.

At first, one may not think an older adult man who experiences memory loss would be interested in having a caring moment with a therapy doll. But think again.

Richard, male resident at memory care, holding a therapy doll
Individuals with memory loss often benefit from providing nurturing care to a therapy doll.
 

Why Dolls?

Rachel Fielkow, Nurse Manager at Riverside Lodge explains,

 

“Our residents love helping, nurturing, and caring for others. When the opportunity presents itself to offer comfort or assistance to a peer, they are all for it. When a therapy dog visits, they take pride in giving it some TLC. And when it comes to therapy dolls, it’s another great way to add responsibility and the caring practices they crave into their daily lives. Many of our residents love spending time with therapy dolls!”

 

For many, picking up a baby brings about an instant calm. The body relaxes, a feeling of tenderness rushes over, and a person might start gently swaying or even cooing and humming. There’s an instant sense of being needed and connected. In an instant, a person who was just anxious, wandering, and focusing on finding what they believe is a lost car is now offering something wonderful and valuable to someone who needs it. For a person with dementia, whether the baby is real or not doesn’t matter. Even if it’s a lifelike baby doll, similar effects take over, which can be overwhelmingly beneficial to what may be a residents otherwise anxious or confused brain.

 

What Does the Research Say?

There are many studies from the past several years that have shown the therapeutic benefits of a person with dementia interacting with lifelike baby dolls. According to one 2017 study titled, “Doll therapy for dementia sufferers: A systematic review,” it was found that doll therapy effectively alleviated behavioral and emotional symptoms and improved overall wellbeing; particularly those with challenging behaviors. Researchers found that those who interacted with dolls were more effectively able to relate with their external environment.

Another case study showed positive results about doll therapy meeting needs for attachment and reducing challenging behaviors for people with dementia.

In a world where dementia is becoming more prevalent, the more tools we have to help, the better. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million people worldwide are living with dementia. By the year 2030, that number is projected to reach 82 million, and by 2050, 152 million.

While it’s still relatively early in the journey of research on doll therapy as a therapeutic modality for individuals with dementia, early positive results suggest it’s a promising practice to implement for a population that is expected to grow.


More robust research on doll therapy is expected in the future. While we wait for additional studies, we’ll continue offering therapy dolls for our residents given the benefits we’ve seen so far.
 

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