Caring for someone with dementia can be painful, especially for loved ones, as the person continues their cognitive decline. Around 5.8 million people in the U.S. live with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. But some patients can find relief by caring for ultra-lifelike dolls that resemble human beings. They are known as therapy dolls and the internet has a lot of questions.
One woman suffering from dementia recently went viral for caring for a therapy doll on TikTok The video was shared by the account @rebornwithreasons, which sells therapy dolls online and volunteers with the local senior citizen community.
According to Reborn with Reasons, holding a doll can lead to the release of Oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone. The physical touch and weight of the doll can provide comfort much like a weighted blanket.
“Holding a baby brings them back to a time in their lives that they remember, maybe memories of their own children or even growing up themselves with young siblings, most are usually happy memories! It’s finding that companionship while remembering something familiar and being capable of having a conversation. No resident has yet to forget how to hold a baby! This instinct is a big reason why this therapy is so effective,” the organization says.
The woman in the video can be seen holding a lifelike doll with the text, “Such a good grandma.” The post has thousands of comments from confused viewers. Some initially believed the child was real until they noticed it was just a doll.
“I thought this baby was real for the longest time, I thought ‘aww it’s so fascinated with its nana’ then it kept that face for a lil too long 😅🥰,” someone wrote.
“Does she wonder why it doesn’t answer? I’m being serious. Does she get frustrated?” asked one person.
“This totally changed my perspective on those types of dolls. if it brings her joy that’s all that matters. she’s so sweet,” someone else commented.
According to experts, therapy dolls are used to bring comfort to adults living with dementia and other types of medical conditions. The goal is to improve their quality of life and increase engagement. But not everyone agrees on when or if these dolls should be used.
Some patients will develop a strong attachment to the doll. It can lead to an increase in smiling and decrease challenging behavior. Experts say interacting with the doll may also give the patient a greater sense of purpose. It is also a non-pharmacological way to help patients cope with dementia. There are no medications or side effects. Caregivers say the doll often helps distract the patient, which makes it easier to provide care.
But these dolls also have plenty of critics. Some caregivers and family members are concerned with the dignity of the person. Playing with a doll can seem childlike and some believe patients with dementia shouldn’t be treated as such. For example, someone might see the patient playing with the doll and say, “Oh, aren’t they cute?” This can be seen as demeaning to the patient.
In other cases, the doll may distract the patient from their own family members. The family may feel slighted if they come to a nursing home and discover their loved one has been given a therapy doll without their consent. The image of seeing a grandparent or loved one playing with a doll can also be unsettling to the family members, especially if they weren’t aware of the extent of the person’s dementia ahead of time.
Facilities and caregivers thinking of introducing a doll to a patient with dementia must contact the person’s power of attorney or their loved ones to explain why this approach is being used and the potential benefits.
There are also questions as to how to present the doll to the patient. Experts say caregivers need to consider who owns the doll and how it will be used at the facility. For example, what happens if the doll becomes lost or stolen? The patient may also be concerned about “babysitting” the doll while they enjoy other activities.
It’s best to place the doll in a location where the patient can find it on their own, rather than simply handing them the doll. This allows the patient to initiate engagement. The facility may need a back-up doll in case the first goes missing.
If the patient gets confused or wants to know if the baby is real, the caregiver should avoid lying to the patient and instead ask them about their own experiences raising children.
Multiple studies involving nursing home residents have found that therapy dolls dramatically decrease the number of negative verbalizations, improves mood, reduces wandering, aggression, and obsessive behavior. While there is a lack of scientifically repeated studies on the topic, doll therapy has been shown to have a positive effect without the use of medications.