She sits alone in her bedroom, cradling her doll back and forth in her arms. But this is not the image of a young child playing with a toy - rather it is of an elderly woman talking to a doll about life and caressing its skin as though it were a real child.
For many, witnessing this could be a confusing sight, but others have known doll therapy to be beneficial for people with dementia for many years.
Dementia Care Australia founder and chief executive officer, Jane Verity, is a passionate advocate for doll therapy and has written many papers on its benefits, as well as explaining opposing views.
“Those who support the use of doll therapy are likely to have had positive, personal experience that dolls have strong symbolic meaning and provide purpose, nurture and healing for people with dementia,” Ms Verity said.
“Those who doubt the benefits of doll therapy may have thoughts such as, ‘I’d rather die than imagine myself as an old person in a nursing home, walking around with a doll’.
“There is a genuine concern that introducing dolls will be seen as childish, demeaning, and patronising so they ensure dolls are not permitted in their facility,” she said.
However, Ms Verity said it was important that when caring for a person in the later stages of dementia to consider a change of thinking from, ‘how will the person respond to this activity?’ to ‘what activity will this person respond to?’
Doll therapy holds symbolic meaning for a person with dementia, according to Ms Verity.
“When a child plays with a doll, it acts as a symbolic representation for a real child. Through the doll the child learns to develop nurture, love and parenting skills.
“When an old person who has dementia takes a doll in their arms and lovingly talks, nurses, kisses, feeds and washes it, the doll has again taken on a symbolic meaning,” she said.
However, some Australian psychologists recently stated doll therapy was not supported. Some suggested parents who buy the dolls to “replace” a child who has passed away, created an unrealistic and pro-longed grieving process.
Linda Morgan, manager of Lee Middleton Dolls, told DPS eNews the dolls were a part of a “growing market”.
“Not a lot of people are aware of it,” Ms Morgan said.
She said the dolls, which awere popular in aged care facilities today, helped to bring residents “back to a happier time”.
“The elderly residents see a smiling face staring back at them and feel like they have done a good job of settling the baby. It contributes to a sense of well-being and sense of self-esteem,” Ms Morgan said.
Dolls come in a range of ethnicities, including Asian, African-American, Caucasian and even Indigenous Australian dolls.
However, Ms Morgan said some aged care facilities tended to use the fairer skin dolls as some residents might “regress” or “reject” Asian babies as it “may take them back to war times”.
Ms Verity suggests when attempting to introduce doll therapy to a dementia sufferer, consider the following tips:
- Obtain family consent.
- Educate staff and families on how to use doll therapy. Ensure they know doll therapy is not a cure.
- Choose the right doll.
- Provide cuddly wraps and blankets to wrap dolls in.
- Provide a cot or bassinet. Many people with dementia take pride in remaking the bassinet as they see best for their baby.
- Provide a nursery area where dolls can be placed and collected.
- Keep an open mind until you have had an opportunity to experience the positive and joyful experience doll therapy can achieve.
- Force a doll on a person with dementia. Not everyone will like or want a doll.
- Avoid sleeping dolls with their eyes permanently closed. This may be upsetting for some people with dementia who become upset if they cannot wake the doll.
- Avoid dolls that cry as the crying may cause the resident distress when they cannot work out how to stop it from crying.
- Leave the doll on the floor, on a shelf or in an ‘unsafe’ place.
- Don’t call it a doll or a baby.
A Pennsylvania medical centre, last month, found geriatric patients in need of soothing seemed to benefit from a type of therapy that involves dolls.
"Not only do we want our patients to be healthy, but we want them to be happy," reseracher, Dr Underhill, said.
"The dolls are just a simple means to that end."
Would you consider doll therapy for your loved one with dementia? Share your thoughts on this issue in the comment box below.