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Something to Hold on to

Baby dolls give dementia patients smiles, comfort

When Patricia Straub — known as Grandma Pattie to her family — developed dementia at age 85, her circle of friends and family found it more difficult to have conversations with her. Losing the ability to communicate is one of the main symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Someone at the facility where she lived at that point gave her a doll baby,” says her granddaughter Aimee Potts. “We saw the change almost immediately. It was a beautiful thing — Grandma Pattie could talk to us about her baby. She would dress it and care for it. Grandma Pattie had had eight children in her lifetime, three of whom had passed away as babies, and her reaction to this doll baby was an instant smile. We finally had something that we could talk to her about.”

Potts even observed behavior changes in her grandmother. While she had shown a fear of taking a shower as her dementia progressed, with the baby doll near, she was able to get through daily habits with ease.

“It was a game changer,” Potts says. “We couldn’t tell if she was aware that it was a doll rather than a real baby, but it didn’t seem to matter. The baby brought the smile back to her face.”

Potts noticed that “Li’l Bit,” another woman at the facility, admired Grandma Pattie’s baby doll, so she gave Li’l Bit a doll of her own.

“After Lil’ Bit passed away, I had to wonder if the baby had brought her some comfort in her last days and possibly even the last hours of life,” Potts says. “That was when I felt like God shared with me that this was something I could do for others. It wasn’t long after that that my own grandma passed away, and shortly after that we started Ladies with Babies.”

Benefits of doll therapy

The idea for Ladies with Babies, which donates baby dolls to dementia patients, took shape in 2020, and in 2022 Potts, along with her husband, Marvin, established it as a nonprofit organization. Board members also include their son, Devan, who works in elder care, and Mary Ross, a hospice certified nursing assistant.

More than just a source of comfort, doll therapy is a non-pharmacological treatment that “has the potential to enhance personal well-being through increased levels of communication and engagement with others,” according to the National Library of Medicine.

Ladies with Babies has been donating baby dolls to patients in senior-care and memory-care facilities throughout Michigan, with an emphasis on Kalamazoo and Jackson, and the Potts family members say they have observed positive reactions from the recipients time and time again.

“By now, we have donated more than 100 of these dolls to patients,” Aimee Potts says. “We focus on families that might not be able to afford these dolls, such as patients at Medicaid facilities. And we work with social care workers to find those who could really use them.

“Again and again, we see those smiles on people’s faces. Families tell us the dolls give them something that they can bond over again. The babies can bring back happy memories. Health-care workers tell us they see a reduction in stress, a decrease in wandering and confusion, and better sleep. Patients are more open to taking their medication.”

Ladies with Babies funds its program through donations — people can sponsor a baby doll for $70 plus $2.59 in processing fees.

“We use all kinds of dolls that are gender-neutral and come in four different skin tones,” Potts says. “We work with a company in Florida that gives us a discount on the dolls, and Little Sprouts in Kalamazoo gives us a discount for these adorable baby doll outfits. It’s a huge blessing.”

When a patient receives a doll, Ladies with Babies does a photo shoot, capturing those priceless smiles.

“One facility in Jackson actually threw a baby shower when a patient received a doll,” Potts says. “The dolls can remind some (people) of their own children, but they also go to people who perhaps were never able to have children of their own due to a disability or being developmentally disabled. You can see the comfort the babies bring them.”

Men benefit, too

Although most of the patients receiving the dolls are women, occasionally a man may wish to hold one, Potts notes.

“Usually, people working at the facilities help us identify who might benefit most by having a doll,” she says. “But there was an older gentleman who requested one. He used to be a pediatrician, and he also had a younger brother who had passed away. He came to an adult daycare center, and the workers saw him hold a doll. The next day he reported dreaming about his own children as babies.”

Although there are few studies on the benefits of doll therapy, Potts says she has seen only positive responses.

“I hope to see more research into doll therapy,” she says. “I’ve seen patients who had become combative as a symptom of dementia become calm when given a baby doll. It relieves their stress. And look at it this way, there are no side effects with these dolls as there are with medications.”

To learn more, visit LadieswithBabies.org.

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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