Therapy with dolls helps local seniors with dementia, alzheimer

Nyla Gunderson, a patient with dementia, holds her doll (Georgia Lawson / News 10)

Nyla Gunderson was diagnosed with dementia years ago. She likes to sing, and is regularly visited by the family, but her communication skills have decreased with the progression of the disease, as often happens with dementia and Alzheimer's patients.

Depression can also co-occur with people in Gunderson's situation. As their brain atrophies, their memory fades and they lose the ability to interact with the parts of the world they were used to.

Despite the complexity of Alzheimer's and dementia, some patients find relief in a simpler solution: dolls.

A recent study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that doll therapy reduced the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. While more research is needed, the study finds that dolls are a promising approach to reducing the negative side effects of dementia.

A pilot program in the Rogue Valley hopes to achieve similar results with local women.

"Everyone in life wants to have a purpose and this kind of initiates for them.When they are completely retired, they start going out on their own again," says Jamie Callahan, founder and Co-CEO of Team Senior Referral Services, who developed this program in collaboration with Home Instead Senior Care.

People who suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia often forget the more recent parts of their lives, so even after losing the recognition of their adult children, they might remember the early years of having a child. Callahan says that the nurturing instinct exhibited by women can also be enough to arouse interest in the doll, even if that memory is gone.

Therefore, dolls are particularly good at cutting the symptoms of both diseases.

"They might not even be able to say that this is a child, but as you can see with Nyla, she is holding the baby, she is cradling the baby, she is singing a lullaby to the baby, and you see her joy," says Peggy Webster, director of operations at Heirloom Living Center, where Gunderson is a resident.

While joy is an important cause, Webster adds that doll therapy can also reduce the dangers of the disease.

"They could be resident-resident altercations, there could be more falls because they're bored and they're just wandering, so the activity is very important," Webster said.

The Senior Referral Services Team will give free dolls to the elderly in the valley who could benefit from it. They are weighted and designed to look as realistic as possible. If you have a loved one who you think can benefit, go to teamsenior.org and click on "Doll Therapy" under the "Resources" tab to apply.

They also plan to offer dolls to dogs to male patients, who do not react so strongly to children as female patients.

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