Doll Therapy For Alzheimer's: Calming Or Condescending? : Shots - Health News Hugging a doll can soothe an upset toddler, and some say it can do the same for people with dementia. But critics say this form of therapy infantilizes adults.

Doll Therapy May Help Calm People With Dementia, But It Has Critics

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Hugging a baby doll can sometimes soothe even the most upset toddler. And some researchers say it can do the same for adults with dementia. Doll therapy is catching on at nursing homes. But, as Anna Gorman reports, not everybody thinks this is a good idea.

ANNA GORMAN, BYLINE: Vivian Guzofsky is 88 and has Alzheimer's disease. She's holding a baby doll dressed in puppy dog pajamas.

VIVIAN GUZOFSKY: Hello, gorgeous (laughter). You're so cute.

GORMAN: She lives on a secure floor at Sunrise Senior Living in Beverly Hills. Caregiver Jessica Butler sits down beside her and they sing to the doll.

JESSICA BUTLER: (Singing) You are my sunshine...

GUZOFSKY: (Singing) ...Sunshine...

BUTLER: (Singing) ...My only sunshine...

GUZOFSKY: (Singing) ...Sunshine...

BUTLER: (Singing) You make me happy...

GORMAN: Nearly every day, Guzofsky visits a pretend nursery at the home. She changes the doll's clothes, or lays him down for a nap. She says she goes there for one reason.

GUZOFSKY: Because I love babies, and that's it. And I do have some very nice ones back when I live now in my room.

GORMAN: Her caregivers don't know if Guzofsky believes she's holding a doll or a real baby, but they do know that the doll helps her when she gets agitated. Vladimir Kaplun is the former director of dementia care at the home.

VLADIMIR KAPLUN: She's able to stay calm. She's able to have a conversation.

GORMAN: Seniors with dementia often get bored, angry or even violent. Senior centers and nursing homes are using doll therapy to both comfort their residents and prevent outbursts. Kaplun says other places may handle aggression differently.

KAPLUN: The solution is not so give them a doll. The solution to give them an Ativan.

GORMAN: That's an anxiety medication that critics say is overused in nursing homes. But not all elder care providers support doll therapy, some see it as demeaning. Gary Mitchell is a nurse in the U.K. who recently wrote a book about doll therapy.

GARY MITCHELL: It can be considered as treating people with dementia like children. And that perpetuates a lot of stigma with dementia care that we're trying to get away from.

GORMAN: Studies on doll therapy are limited, but show it can lessen anxiety, improve communication and reduce the need for drugs. Mitchell says it can also evoke long-buried memories.

MITCHELL: For some people living with dementia, it's life changing.


GORMAN: At Sunrise Beverly Hills, the nursery is set up like a baby's room, with a crib and changing table. There's a toy xylophone and a Dr. Seuss book. Kaplun says the idea is to give residents something to do and talk about.

KAPLUN: What were your babies' names? How did you pick your babies' names? What are some of the best things about being a mom?

GORMAN: Another resident, 87-year-old Marilou Roos, is in a wheelchair and rarely speaks. She can't take part in many activities anymore, but she can hold the dolls.

BUTLER: Hold him really tight.

GORMAN: This morning, Butler hands Roos a doll wrapped in a blanket. Roos pats him on the back and gives him a kiss.

BUTLER: You're doing a good job holding the baby...


BUTLER: A boy, yeah, baby boy. And he's five months.

GORMAN: Caring for babies is second nature to Roos. Her daughter, Ellen Swarts, said her mom did everything for her five children.

ELLEN SWARTS: She volunteered at the school, she did Girl Scouts with us, she was on the PTA, so very involved in raising us.

GORMAN: Swarts said the progression of Alzheimer's has been hard. Her mother hasn't called her by name in over a year.

SWARTS: To see the light in her eyes when she has a baby in arms, I don't care if it's real or not, or if it's pretending. If that gives her comfort, I'm A-OK with it.

GORMAN: Swarts says all that matters to her is that the doll makes her mom happy when perhaps she needs it the most. I'm Anna Gorman in Beverly Hills.

INSKEEP: Anna Gorman is with our partner Kaiser Health News.

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