Baby Love: Therapy for Alzheimer's Sufferers

Last updated: September 29, 2009
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Image by Kıvanç Niş used under the creative commons attribution license.

Caregivers rightly have an aversion to treating older adults like children, even when the effects of dementia render them child-like. But here's a wonderful exception that Alzheimer's patients enjoy: Try giving a woman in the later stages of dementia a baby doll.

Surprisingly, an "Alzheimer's baby" helps someone with dementia feel like a functional adult (not a patronized child). And that brings feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, calm, and accomplishment. Cuddling a doll soothes and entertains, reducing aggression. Pretty good, as dementia activities go.

I'll never forget bringing my daughter Page, then about 15 months old, to her older sister's Brownie troop outing at a local nursing home. Page was in a huge baby phase "“ she gravitated toward babies, whether real, toy, or pictured in board books. So of course she quickly noticed the elderly resident sitting in a corner with a baby doll in her arms. Page made a beeline.

I hesitated, wondering what might ensue. (Confusion on Page's part as to why a grown-up had a doll? A tussle over it?) But the woman smiled and tenderly showed off her "baby" to Page. She even let her hold it. (Which my 15-month-old did "“ tenderly!). The two of them communed a common wavelength for almost 20 minutes while the Brownies sang songs.

"Dolls can create miracles," says architectural gerontologist Mark Warner, founder of Ageless Design and The Alzheimer's Store. "They allow people who are no longer able to communicate to once again say that they're hungry, need to go to the bathroom, are uncomfortable, often using the doll as their tool: 'My baby is cold.' Also a parent's need to nurture and care for another reappears, at a time when it seems they're the ones needing all the care."

(Pets and stuffed animals can have similar effects, but for obvious reasons, babies work magic with women.)

The Alzheimer's Store, which sells anything a family dealing with dementia might need, all carefully culled by Warner, has a [survey] ( up to help pick which baby dolls to stock. Vote for your three favorites and get 10 percent off your next order.

I voted for Sunny and Kelly, the dark-haired thumbsuckers "“ though I'm most fond of bald baby dolls (not among the choices). From personal experience as the mom of three girls, they're easier to wash. Baby-doll hair tends to stick up in funny ways after awhile, though maybe only when little girls are dragging them around. Experienced "mommies" probably take better care of their Alzheimer's babies. I suppose I'm also partial to baldies because three of my four babies were born that way (the other was, you guessed it, a dark-haired thumbsucker!).

I wonder whether the Alzheimer's patients click best with baby dolls who look most like their own? Should this be a consideration when you pick one?

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8 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 5 years ago

It's wonderful that it is ackinowledged dolls help women but since I care for my spouse, what is recommended or works for men for the same purposes? Will appreciate any ideas or known things that have worked for the men. Thanks

about 5 years ago

Thanks Paula for your comment. I will plan to get my mother a baby doll for christmas this yr. As you said, now she will love it as a cute gift, later this gift may comfort her.

about 5 years ago

My grandmother passed away at 101 years of age and in her final year she was given a life size doll which she absolutely loved. This is such a comfort. Any suggestions for me?

about 5 years ago

my mother just pasted away a few months ago from 8yrs of dementia. her last 4 yrs was in a nursing home. shortly after she was there, i bought her a cute bunny with floppy ears it was the size of a small baby. that was the best present i ever bought her. she loved and cared and talked to that bunny like it was her baby. i believe thats what kept her company and kept her going for 4 more yrs. when she died i wanted the bunny to go with her but i changed my mind at the last minute and decided to keep her with me for my memories.

about 5 years ago

dancingbird, I think that when and how people respond to doll therapy varies by individual. She might enjoy it at first just as a sweet gift, as many women collect dolls, and then may or may not take greater comfort in it as time goes by.

about 5 years ago

My mother is not "there" yet, but I recall how a babydoll really helped my grandmother years ago. She loved that babydoll, and altho she didn't carry it around, she enjoyed having it in her room, and she would laugh about it like she was "in" on some joke, but it always made her smile. I'm all for what works! Course, with me, its probably going to have to be Johnny Depp or Paul McCartney doll.....

about 5 years ago

My mom is in the later moderate stage of Alzheimers, would a baby doll soothe her now? Or is the doll therapy best received and helpful when in the late stage? Thanks!

about 5 years ago

My agency provides care for an elderly woman in the later stages of Alzheimer's, and she loves her baby doll. I'm glad to see that this is recognized as a good therapy for her. We also use Baby Einstein DVDs to entertain her and play with paper dolls with her. She also responds well to very simple puzzles.

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