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What is Doll Therapy in Dementia Care?

June 4th, 2024

As our loved ones progress to the later stages of dementia, they often experience feelings of confusion or distress. Doll therapy in dementia care can help tremendously with promoting relaxation, comfort and a sense of security. In this article we’ll discuss doll therapy, why it is used for people with dementia, as well as the potential benefits and drawbacks.

What Is Doll Therapy For Dementia?

picture of a doll used in doll therapy for dementia

Dementia, a progressive condition that is characterised by cognitive decline, affects memory, thinking, behaviour, and the ability to perform everyday activities. As the condition progresses, individuals often experience agitation, anxiety, and a loss of purpose. This is sometimes referred to as ‘sundowning’ but is not necessarily linked to the sun setting or limited to the end of the day. These feelings of distress can be due to many factors but one trigger is due to wanting to go home, or to see their children/baby, even if they are now grown adults. 

Doll therapy is a non-pharmacological intervention used in dementia care that involves giving individuals with dementia a lifelike doll to care for and interact with. This therapy is based on the idea that providing individuals with a doll can help decrease agitation, anxiety, and challenging behaviours by providing them with a sense of purpose and companionship. The dolls can also evoke memories of past caregiving roles and provide comfort and familiarity to individuals with dementia. Doll therapy has been shown to have positive effects on mood and behaviour in some individuals with dementia, although it is important to note that not everyone may benefit from this type of intervention.

Why Is Doll Therapy Used In Dementia Care?

Doll therapy for dementia can be an effective way to provide comfort and stimulation to individuals living with dementia. The act of caring for and interacting with a doll can be particularly beneficial for those with dementia as it can help manage stress, reduce anxiety, stimulate memories, and provide much-needed companionship.

Doll therapy can also help individuals with dementia to recall pleasant memories from the past, fostering a sense of joy and connection. Individuals tend to cuddle the doll, sing to it, and take care of it as though it were a real baby. During supervised sessions, dolls may be brought out for the residents to share or they may have their own doll to keep nearby day and night. 

Benefits Of Doll Therapy

happy looking senior person after doll therapy

Doll therapy helps to reduce feelings of distress through several mechanisms:

  • Calming effect: Engaging with a doll can help soothe individuals, reducing distress or anxiety. The act of holding or caring for a doll can be calming and provide a distraction from any distressing symptoms
  • Comfort: Dolls provide a sense of companionship, lowering feelings of loneliness and isolation. They can evoke nurturing instincts, offering emotional comfort and a sense of responsibility
  • Enhanced communication: Dolls can serve as a medium for interaction, encouraging verbal and non-verbal communication. They can help break through barriers, allowing caregivers to connect more effectively with individuals through conversations about the toy and their feelings towards it
  • Sense of purpose: Caring for a doll can give individuals a renewed sense of purpose and structure. They can be used in a dementia friendly environment as another way to increase feelings of independence and autonomy
  • Non-pharmaceutical approach: Doll therapy for dementia is considered to be a safer, non medication solution for managing some of the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia

Risks Of Doll Therapy

As with any form of therapy, there are some drawbacks of doll therapy that may potentially occur, such as:

  • Families’ concerns: One worry often mentioned by family members is that the resident might mistake the doll for their own child, or that it could cause unnecessary stress if they think the doll is real. Additionally, families may find it difficult to see their loved one cuddling a doll, and there are concerns that it may make the person feel infantilised. Ensuring a respectful and person-centred approach is crucial for caregivers
  • Variable acceptance: There is some nuance involved with doll therapy. Dementia symptoms can vary and not all individuals with dementia will respond positively to doll therapy. Preferences and responses can vary widely, and forcing interaction can lead the resident to feel agitated or frustrated
  • Ethical considerations: There are ethical debates regarding the use of dolls in therapy for dementia patients, particularly concerning the idea of reinforcing delusions. Caregivers must balance the benefits with respect for the individual’s dignity and autonomy. Other therapy approaches, such as magic tables are another option to consider
  • Caregiver training: Effective implementation of doll therapy requires training for caregivers to ensure that it is introduced and managed appropriately. Without proper understanding, the therapy may not yield the desired outcomes or could cause further agitation for the resident
  • Unfulfilling: The effectiveness of dementia dolls varies from person to person. Some may respond positively, some negatively but some residents may show indifference towards the toy. However, steps can be taken to gently ease the doll away if it’s shown to have negative effects

Guidance For The Use Of Doll Therapy In Dementia Care

nurse and patient in care home taking part in doll therapy

Families and caregivers need to appreciate the sensitive nature of introducing doll therapy for dementia care, and take the necessary steps to ensure a smooth introduction:

  • Choosing the right doll: When selecting dementia dolls, it is important to consider factors such as the patient’s preferences, gender, and any past attachments to other dolls. Consider choosing a doll that resembles a child’s doll or a realistic doll that the patient can relate to
  • Creating a safe and engaging environment: The environment where the doll therapy session takes place should be calm and visually appealing. It should be free from distractions and provide a comfortable space for the patient to engage with the doll. Consider adding cushions, soft lighting, and soothing music to create a pleasant atmosphere.
  • How to introduce doll therapy to a patient: Introducing doll therapy to a patient requires patience and understanding. Start by explaining the purpose and benefits of doll therapy for dementia in a calm and reassuring manner. Allow the patient time to explore the doll at their own pace, it’s important not to rush them as not all patients may respond positively. Some patients may be hesitant or resistant to engaging in doll therapy initially, so it is crucial to adapt the approach to meet their individual needs and preferences
  • Respect their feelings: Many residents with dementia will believe the doll is real and will often refer to it as their ‘baby’, do not try to correct them as this may cause confusion and distress
  • Manage their time with the doll: The person with dementia may form a strong attachment to their doll and can become upset if someone else picks it up. The best way to confidently handle this is to avoid having the dementia dolls out in situations where this may happen – e.g. in a communal area of a care home
  • Replacement: Whilst the doll can bring a lot of comfort and happiness for the resident, there may naturally be some attachment arising from doll therapy. Dementia can cause confusion and distress so it’s always advised to have a replacement available should the doll need to be cleaned or becomes lost

Doll Therapy At New Care Homes

The sensitive and complex nature of introducing doll therapy is one that requires understanding, patience and compassion. If it’s decided that doll therapy may be suitable for your loved one, you can feel confident that all of our staff at New Care Homes are expertly trained to implement and manage doll therapy amongst our residents.

New Care Homes offer multi care provisions, offering various levels of care across all of our care homes, with qualified staff trained in each area, including dementia care. Our homes are located nationwide from Manchester, Cheshire, Leeds to Merseyside. Plus, with state-of-the-art surroundings and carefully selected well-being activities, we strive to ensure the best possible living experience for all residents.

If you’re ready to find out more, get in touch with our friendly team today to arrange a visit to one of our New Care homes.