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What Is Doll Therapy?

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Are you looking for a new way to help your elderly loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s feel supported and connected? Doll therapy might be the perfect solution.

What is doll therapy? Doll therapy involves assigning an inanimate object—usually a baby doll or stuffed animal—to an elderly person with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The idea is that the patient will form an emotional bond with the doll as if it were a real companion or friend.

Doll therapy is an increasingly popular activity in elderly care centers and other senior facilities, hospitals, and nursing homes. These types of non-pharmacological interventions have been known to bring joy and comfort to those who participate in it and can even provide some therapeutic benefits.

Individuals with dementia experience many symptoms as the illness progress. Some of the common symptoms of dementia are memory loss, depression, anxiety, agitation, and aggression. Non-pharmacological interventions can help alleviate the common symptoms of dementia. Some of these interventions include therapies, relaxation techniques, and creative activities.

Nicole Sintler, as found in Semantic Scholar

Let’s take a closer look!

What Is Doll Therapy Used For?

Doll therapy is used to provide comfort and companionship to elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, it is believed that the act of caring for realistic dolls provides a sense of purpose and can help the patient create meaningful connections, help reduce feelings of loneliness, and even improve cognitive functions, in some cases.

This is based, in part, on attachment theory, which was formulated by psychiatrist, John Bowlby, in the 1960s. His theory suggested that babies are born with instinctive behaviors that keep the parent nearby, thus enabling the child to survive.

Crying, smiling, wiggling and movement, and so forth, stimulate the parent to interact with and care for the child.

Although Bowlby’s work was with babies, therapeutic intervention with doll therapy is thought to trigger many of the instinctual caregiving responses in adults. It can stimulate emotional responses that are soothing to an adult with dementia and invoke positive behaviors.

The dolls used in doll therapy are typically lifelike dolls designed with anatomically correct features, such as hands and feet, faces, eyes, and hair. The idea is that this resemblance to a real person will make the patient feel less isolated and more secure.

Through playing and interacting with the doll in simple activities like brushing its hair or dressing up the doll in different outfits, patients can find joy by providing care for something else.

The dolls also serve as an object of focus to distract from the pain and distress caused by some illnesses.

Doll therapy can even be used with Alzheimer’s patients as part of reminiscence therapy, to help them recall memories from their childhood.

Though doll therapy is a relatively new technique, it has proven successful in many cases. Many nursing homes, hospitals, and other elderly care facilities have seen positive results when implementing this form of treatment.

By providing dolls for residents to interact with, caregivers are able to create meaningful connections that make a real difference in the lives of those they care for.

Doll Therapy Dementia Research

Several studies on doll therapy for dementia have shown promising results in those living with the condition.

In one, elderly participants displayed significant improvements in communication and social interaction after interacting with dolls.

Patients showed increased engagement and eye contact as well as improved verbal communication and a reduction in negative behaviors such as aggression or agitation.

Another study by Bisiani and Angus, “Demonstrated that doll therapy was a positive intervention for the person living with dementia who was the participant in this research. The findings indicate a reduction in behaviours of concern related to the need for attachment and a considerable decline in levels of anxiety and agitation. There was extensive ongoing improvement in social interaction and communication.”

Interestingly, as Mitchell and O’Donnell noted in their research, teddy bears and other non-human objects (such as a soft foam rubber cube that was introduced to dementia patients in one study) don’t get the same positive results as using dolls that look like real babies.

Finally, research has highlighted how doll therapy has the potential to reduce loneliness among older adults.

Studies have demonstrated that interacting with dolls can not only help stem loneliness, but it can also improve the overall quality of life by providing psychological relief and giving structure and purpose to daily activities.

Doll Therapy Benefits

Doll therapy can improve the self-esteem and mental health of those with dementia as it fosters a sense of companionship, which is especially important for those living alone or in a nursing home.

Other potential benefits for this type of therapy are a reduced level of agitation, decreased signs of depression, and giving people a greater purpose.

Additionally, research suggests that doll therapy can help improve cognitive functioning and increase social interaction in those affected by dementia.

As such, doll therapy can be a great way to bring joy and foster emotional connections with those who may have trouble doing so on their own.

Another benefit of using a doll as a therapeutic tool is that people with cognitive decline may not recognize where they are or who the people are around them (even loved ones).

Caring for a realistic doll is often a familiar activity that they remember from their younger days and happy memories of early parenthood. It can be calming and reassuring, thus meaning the person experiences less fearfulness.

One thought surrounding the psychological symptoms of dementia (agitation, sleep problems, wandering, depression, etc) leads back to attachment theory and the idea that these negative behaviors are really attachment behaviors.

In this theory, the person with dementia is frightened and understandably feels insecure. They are looking for familiar faces and surroundings, but can’t find them because their dementia has taken away their memories.

But caring for a real baby is often second nature for lot of people who either were parents themselves or provided care for younger siblings in their early years.

This familiar occupation of caring through the therapeutic use of dolls contributes to the feeling of safety and helps calm emotional and behavioral disturbances.

Disadvantages Of Doll Therapy

Although doll therapy has been proven to bring many benefits, it is not without its disadvantages.

1.Dolls may not be suitable for those with mental illness or behavioral issues that interfere with the effectiveness of the therapy.

    2. Family members may object to it, due to their misconception that “playing with dolls” takes away their loved one’s sense of dignity.

    3. Additionally, because this type of therapy relies on personal connections and attachment, there can be a fear of loss when a patient no longer has access to their doll. Sometimes care home residents get very upset if they have to give their doll back to a caregiver when going to a meal or other activity.

    4. Furthermore, some people may find dolls creepy or uncomfortable due to cultural biases or religious beliefs.

    5. Lastly, doll therapy isn’t always accessible due to physical limitations if a person cannot hold and interact with the doll themselves.

    Despite these challenges, doll therapy can still provide immense comfort and joy in cases where people need it most. Its impact can be profound and it can yield a truly remarkable effect on some dementia cases.

    Why Is Doll Therapy Controversial?

    That being said, there is still much debate over the effectiveness of doll therapy. While many people report positive outcomes when using the method, others don’t have any significant improvement in their cognitive health status.

    However, a study on the therapeutic use of doll therapy by Pizzalti, et al, concluded, “Results support the effectiveness of Doll therapy in promoting and maintaining the affective-relational dimension of attachment-caregiving and the attentive dimension of exploration in patients with advanced stage of dementia. Thus, our results suggest that the use of Doll therapy promotes clinically significant improvements in the ability to relate with the surrounding world.”

    Furthermore, as doll therapy involves activities like dressing and caring for dolls or playing with them, as I noted in the prior section, some people may feel that it is a childish activity that is not suitable for their adult family members.

    However, due to their cognitive impairments, patients with MNCD often do not see and interpret the world as we do, which raises the question of what importance truth has to them. With respect to DT, it is both documented in the literature and discussed in this paper that patients with MNCD may respond well to dolls and gain happiness from them.

    Chinnaswamy, et al

    There are also concerns that the person’s caregivers or the staff members in a memory care facility might have a tendency to treat the person with a dementia doll as a child or might stigmatize them or mock the person.

    Others worry that the person with advanced dementia might become more disoriented if they have a doll that they perceive as being real, which might worsen the person’s cognitive impairment.

    Lastly, some dementia care professionals fear that the stress of “caring” for a therapy doll might be too much for people who are in the more advanced stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

    While these factors contribute to why doll therapy remains controversial among healthcare professionals, nevertheless, it has been utilized successfully in numerous cases with great results, so its use should not be dismissed entirely.

    Ultimately, more research is needed to better understand how and when doll therapy can be most effectively used moving forward.

    Best Dolls For Dementia Patients

    Choosing the best dolls for dementia patients depends on a variety of factors, such as the patient’s age and the stage of their dementia.

    Generally speaking, dolls with soft fabric bodies and no sharp edges are ideal since these provide comfort while reducing the risk of injury.

    For elderly patients, lifelike “reborn” dolls may be most appropriate as they can help to trigger memories of past experiences and conversations.

    If a patient is in an advanced stage of dementia and has difficulty recognizing people due to their condition, it may be beneficial to choose a doll that is gender-neutral or based on an animal rather than a human figure.

    It’s also important to ensure that the doll is easy to clean and maintain if it will be handled frequently by staff or patients.

    Here are some of the dolls we recommend for doll therapy (or go here to see the wide variety of baby dolls online).

    Aren’t they realistic?

    Pinky Reborn Lifelike 20 Inch Reborn Baby Dolls

    Their heads are made of silicone vinyl, the body is cloth. They are 20 inches long and weighted to feel like a real baby.

    They have hand drawn eyebrows and eyelashes, rooted hair, and the arms and legs can be moved into different positions.

    NOTE: this doll cannot be put into water and can only be cleaned with a damp washcloth!


    OCSDOLL Reborn Baby Dolls

    This cutie has a silicone head and arms. She weighs about 3.35 pounds (1.35 kgs) and features hand painted eyebrows and hand applied eyelashes (and even has fingernails).

    She can be posed sitting or lying down, but her eyes do not open.


    Aori Reborn Baby Dolls Black African American

    Made of soft vinyl (arms, legs, and head) and a cloth body, the adorable little doll is 22 inches long and weighs about 4 pounds.

    She sits up or lies down and has a full head of hair, plus hand painted lips and fingernails. She cannot be put in the bathtub (wash using a s soft wash cloth only).


    Final Thoughts

    Doll therapy can provide comfort to those who are isolated due to health concerns and mental ailments, as well as provide a source of companionship. It has been found to be effective in reducing anxiety, agitation and depression, while also helping improve mood and overall well being.

    Studies have shown that doll therapy could even lead to an improved quality of life for those living with dementia or related conditions. With the right kind of doll, it is possible to create a positive impact on their ability to interact socially and cognitively.

    Doll therapy is often used alongside other therapeutic interventions such as art therapy or music therapy for further improvement of patient well being.

    It is important to remember that doll therapy should not replace standard care methods, but rather supplement them.

    The right kind of doll should be chosen to ensure the best outcome. It is also important to understand that each individual’s experience with doll therapy will be unique, so check with a healthcare professional to determine if it is an appropriate option.

    Overall, while doll therapy may not be suitable for every dementia patient, it can provide a calming and meaningful activity that could help improve the quality of life for those living with dementia or related conditions.

    If you believe this type of therapy might be beneficial for someone you know, speak with their healthcare provider about your concerns and potential options.

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