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Professional carer and lead nurse Daphne Simpson discusses the pros and cons of doll therapy and explains how it might help your loved one with dementia.

‘I first came across doll therapy whilst working in a nursing home in Florida, USA. The home had converted one of its specialist activity rooms into a ‘nursery’ filled with dolls in cots, where residents could come and go as they pleased. It was a very popular room, particularly with women, though I did see men using it, too. Some residents would sit happily for hours cuddling a doll, talking to it, or feeding it with a bottle or spoon. The nursery brought a lot of pleasure and had many benefits, helping ease anxiety, aggression and giving meaning and purpose to each day.

‘But doll therapy is not without its critics. The main argument against it is that it’s demeaning to a person with dementia. ‘Playing’ with a doll is something children do, not adults, they say.

‘Whilst I do sympathise with this opinion, especially when it’s expressed by family members who are upset or embarrassed at the sight of a loved one acting in an apparently infantile way, I do think doll therapy can be beneficial, when used correctly. In my opinion, doll therapy isn’t purely ‘playing,’ it’s actually fulfilling an important need; the need to nurture.

‘Since coming to the UK I’ve worked with clients who have gained much from it. One lady, for example, was already non-verbal when I started caring for her, but was attached to her doll. She liked to wrap a shawl around it, cuddle, pat and kiss it. She was a mum of four who’d obviously spent many happy years nurturing her own babies, so this was a perfectly normal activity for her which she enjoyed – so why not?

‘However, there are a couple of things to consider before you try doll therapy.

1. Doll therapy is a great activity for people in the mid stages of dementia, but you can start it earlier than this, if your loved one is accepting of it.

2. Don’t hand a doll directly to the person you’re caring for, just leave it where they can see it and if they want to pick it up, they can. This may seem a trivial point but it isn’t. If your loved one feels as if the doll has been ‘forced’ upon them, it can make them feel very stressed – which totally defeats the object.

3. Try to get a doll which is as life-like as possible. Baby dolls that you can feed and change are easily available now, you can even get some with weighed bottoms which make patting and cuddling easier.

Tip: Don’t buy the sort of doll that cries or plays music – these can be very aggravating for someone with dementia.

‘And finally, remember that doll therapy isn’t only for women – men like to cuddle, too. If your loved one seems agitated and unable to relax, this type of therapy might be worth considering, whether they’re male or female.’