Therapy dolls, often known as dementia dolls, are specially designed dolls that are used as therapeutic tools for individuals living with dementia, particularly in the later stages of the condition.
The concept behind therapy dolls is rooted in reminiscence therapy, which involves using objects, activities, and stimuli from an individual’s past to trigger positive memories and emotions. They can promote feelings of comfort, relaxation, and pleasure, and are considered a form of therapy rather than a toy.
How therapy dolls can help people with dementia
For people with dementia, who often experience memory loss and cognitive decline, therapy dolls provide the comfort, engagement, and emotional support so often craved by sufferers. Other purposes include:
Therapy dolls can stimulate dementia patients through various sensory, emotional, and cognitive mechanisms. Interactions such as holding, touching, and talking to the doll can stimulate different senses and engage motor skills.
For example, holding and touching the doll provides tactile sensory input. The soft texture of the doll’s materials can be soothing and comforting, offering a tangible connection for the individual.
Talking or singing to the doll can engage auditory senses. Even if the doll doesn’t respond, the act of speaking or singing can provide sensory stimulation and promote communication.
The visual presence of the doll can attract attention and provide a focal point for dementia sufferers. The doll’s appearance, colours, and features can stimulate visual recognition and engagement.
Holding, carrying, and dressing the doll involves fine motor skills. Engaging in these activities can help maintain or improve motor skills and coordination.
Therapy dolls can be great conversation starters between individuals with dementia and their care providers, family members, or friends. Care professionals can use the dolls to initiate discussions, ask questions, and encourage verbal interaction.
If there are younger family members, such as grandchildren or great grandchildren – playing with or talking about the doll together can help them interact, connect, and foster feelings of closeness.
The sensation of holding a doll can remind dementia patients of a time when they had young children or a pet of their own. Evoking memories of parenthood or caregiving roles can trigger positive emotions and conversations related to the person’s past experiences.
Caring for a doll can also give people with dementia a renewed sense of purpose and help them connect with the outside world. In turn, this can improve their energy, activity levels, and mood.
Routine and structure
Establishing a caregiving routine with the doll, such as “feeding”, changing clothes, or putting the doll to “sleep”, can help dementia patients maintain a sense of structure and predictability in their daily lives.
Routine and predictability are crucial for individuals with dementia due to their cognitive challenges and memory loss. Establishing consistent routines offers stability, reduces anxiety, and minimises confusion. It enhances independence, improves sleep patterns, and supports daily activities, while also reducing challenging behaviours and preserving cognitive resources. Routines empower individuals with a sense of control, helping them to maintain social connections and aiding caregivers in providing effective care. However, flexibility is important to accommodate changing needs as dementia progresses. Overall, routines provide comfort and a structured environment that significantly improves the quality of life for individuals living with dementia.
It is common for people living with dementia to experience spouts of agitation, restlessness, or challenging behaviours. Some people with dementia experience ‘sundowning’ whereby they suffer a state of intense confusion and distress that typically occurs in the evening (hence the term sundowning). They may feel a strong need to go home, even if they are already at home, or to put their child to bed, even if they are grown up. Interacting with a therapy doll can help redirect their focus and reduce agitation and it is particularly useful during the evenings when feelings of distress and insecurity can begin to seep in.
The dolls are ideal for providing a sense of companionship and comfort. People with dementia might find solace in holding, cuddling, or caring for the doll, which can help alleviate feelings of loneliness or anxiety. Plus, they can help individuals with dementia maintain a sense of identity and self-worth, as they engage in nurturing behaviours that align with their past roles and experiences.
Doll therapy at the Future Care Group
Bear Brady, Lifestyle Lead at the Future Care Group’s Albany Lodge Nursing Home shares her experience of using doll therapy with dementia residents:
“At Albany Lodge, we are passionate about finding different ways to enhance out resident’s lives whilst they stay with us. We recently introduced Belinda, our therapy doll to our dementia residents. Belinda looks very real and has the weight of a real-life newborn baby.
We had no idea how much our residents would love Belinda or even if they would like her, but we have been very touched by the reactions from all our residents. The staff have welcomed Belinda too! Residents enjoy rocking her to sleep, singing to her, and stroking her hands and face. Residents often fall asleep whilst soothing the doll because they are so content and relaxed. We have even had requests for a cot, pushchair, new clothes, and nappies for Belinda too so they can dress and socialise with her.
We take Belinda to each resident individually either in their own rooms or in the lounge where they are seated and each time we are amazed by the impact she has.
The sensation of holding a doll can be soothing and can remind individuals with dementia of a time when they had young children of their own or in their life. The dolls offer a renewed sense of purpose and a connection with the outside world, which can lead to increased activity levels or simply create pleasant nostalgic feelings or affection.
The limited number of studies on doll therapy for dementia have found that it can reduce aggression, obsessive behaviours, and negative mood, among other benefits and that it can also improve a person’s ability to relate to others.
It has been quite touching and beautiful to see real engagement from our residents that have historically not engaged with our other activities.”
Our tips for using a doll with a person with dementia
- Introduce gradually: Introduce the doll gently and gradually, explaining its purpose and inviting the person to interact. Allow them to touch, hold, or examine the doll at their own pace. Not everyone will respond positively to a therapy doll, so pay attention to the person’s reactions. If the doll causes distress or agitation, reconsider its use. If it brings comfort, continue integrating it into their routine. If the person is hesitant, explain how the doll can provide companionship and comfort, or share stories related to parenthood or caregiving.
- Choose an appropriate doll: Select a doll that resembles an infant, as it can trigger nurturing instincts. Ensure the doll is the right size and weight for comfortable handling. A doll with realistic facial features, hair, and clothing can enhance the sense of connection and engagement. Plus, giving the doll a name and referring to it with gender-specific pronouns can enhance the sense of interaction and personal connection.
- Model interaction and encourage conversations: Demonstrate how to interact with the doll by holding, talking to, or caring for it. This can encourage the person to imitate the behaviour. Try asking open-ended questions about the doll, its name, and needs. This can encourage individuals to communicate and engage with you.
- Incorporate caregiving activities using multi-sensory approaches: Introduce familiar caregiving activities like feeding, changing clothes, or “putting to sleep.” This can foster a sense of purpose and familiarity. At the same time, you can incorporate sensory rich activities such as soft fabric, pleasant scents, or calming sounds to really alert a patient’s senses.
It is important to highlight that lots of patience and a gentle approach are key to introducing a therapy doll. Individuals with dementia may take time to respond or understand. Avoid pressuring them to interact with the doll.
It’s also a good idea to discuss your plans to give the person a doll with other family members and loved ones. Some people worry about the person being treated like a child, but by explaining the benefits, it may ease their concerns.
Alternatively, some people with dementia may become very attached to their doll and be upset if someone else picks it up. You might want to avoid using the doll in any scenario where this might occur. If an individual seems to believe the toy is real, for example referring to the doll as their ‘baby’, avoid correcting them as it will likely cause distress.
Always keep a watchful eye to ensure the person doesn’t mistreat the doll or accidentally harm themselves while interacting with it.
There are so many games and activities that can be enjoyed by dementia patients. If you would like to know more about the Future Care Group’s dementia strategy and other advice regarding dementia and the types of care we provide, check out our blog for more information.