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How a Doll Made a Difference for My Mother With Alzheimer's Disease

My mom, who we affectionately called Mummy, was a highly social person who loved to play endless card games, take shopping trips, visit relatives, volunteer at her church and tell family stories to anyone who would listen.

As Mummy got older, I started to note some personality changes and odd behaviors.

One night, Mummy phoned to say she was all dressed and ready for an outing we had planned the next day. She didn’t seem to grasp it was dark outside and I would be picking her up in the morning. A few weeks later, she became very upset when she didn’t win at bingo and was convinced her friends had cheated.

Mummy also had great difficulty conveying her thoughts. She’d start talking but could rarely finish a whole story and sometimes not even a complete sentence.

The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s disease, and over the next eight years, it would rob my mom of almost everything.

Not long after she was diagnosed, Mummy moved to a care home. As time passed, she was no longer able to have meaningful interactions, which caused her to withdraw. Day after day, she sat quietly in her room.

As her world seemed to grow smaller, Mummy often appeared sad and depressed.

Driving home after visiting her, I’d often think, “What could I do to bring more joy and contentment into my mom’s life?”

It was time to try something new. I’d read about doll therapy for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

The premise is simple: Introduce a soft-bodied, realistic baby doll to a person with memory loss and see how the person reacts. Researchers in the U.K. have conducted doll therapy research as far back as 2001. “An increasing body of evidence suggests the use of dolls can have a positive impact on people with dementia in residential care,” Patricia Higgins, a memory service nurse specialist, wrote in the Nursing Times.

However, Higgins also stressed using dolls to enhance the well-being of people with dementia shouldn’t be a substitute for other therapeutic activities. She also added that it’s difficult to determine who will enjoy the doll and who won’t.

I certainly didn’t want to create more challenges for Mummy, but I also felt compelled to help ease her isolation and obvious loneliness. What did I have to lose?

Nancy Wurtzel’s mother
Nancy’s mother with the doll.

When I handed the pink-swaddled bundle to Mummy, I could see she was instantly captivated. With watery eyes and a sweet smile, she beamed at the little doll in her arms. Instinctively, she hugged the doll close and whispered in a soft voice, “Well, I’ll be darned.”

It was the most words she had spoken in months.

From that moment on, Mummy and Baby Doll, as we dubbed her, were inseparable. Kissing, cooing and caring for her doll filled Mummy’s long days. She especially loved showing Baby Doll off to others, even allowing some people to rock the dolly for a few minutes.

When I now visited Mummy, she didn’t seem desolate. Instead, she had a small baby to care for, which seemed to give her life new purpose and meaning. Together, we’d sit and admire the doll. Mummy would smile, hold Baby Doll to her cheek and quietly hum a nameless tune.

Watching the healing power of this special relationship reinforced my belief about the strong instinct and need to show affection at every stage of life. People would often ask me if my mom believed the doll was a real baby. I wasn’t sure, but it made no difference. Mummy simply loved and adored Baby Doll, and, in return, the doll brought great comfort to a mother nearing the end of her life.

Late last year, when she was in the final stages of the disease, Mummy moved into my home. Under hospice care, she died a few weeks later with Baby Doll, her constant companion, cradled in her arms.

My Alzheimer’s caregiving experience was often filled with feelings of frustration and sadness. Yet, there was also laughter and glimpses of pure joy, even during the later years of my mother’s illness. Looking back, Baby Doll was often at the center of those happy moments. The little doll was such a simple idea, yet her impact was astonishing.

Today, Baby Doll is still wrapped in the same pink blanket. She’s safely tucked away, resting comfortably on a high shelf in my bedroom closet. But I have the feeling Baby Doll’s days of spreading love and joy are not over. I think Mummy would approve.

Follow this journey on Dating Dementia.

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