Oct 112007
 

I recently read ‘DANCING WITH ROSE: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s’ by Lauren Kessler. In it, she reveals the inner life of an Alzheimer’s care facility. I liked so much about this book but want to share one part in particular for now.

Early on in her job at the care facility, Kessler tells us about a group of ‘doll mothers.’

“One lady is sitting in the rocking chair, rocking her doll back and forth, back and forth, her eyes half-closed, her lips upturned in a half-smile. She has that dreamy look mothers have when they rock their babies. At one of the dining room tables sit Billie and two other doll mothers, all holding their swaddled babies to their chests.”

She goes on to describe both the residents and the workers fussing over the dolls, everyone playing along as if the dolls were real babies.

My grandmother who had Alzheimer’s did this. She used to sit on her couch and hug them and coo at them. I think there were two dolls. I vaguely remember a stuffed bear named Henry as well, but it was the dolls she loved and mothered. I remember hearing her tell them how beautiful they were.

The first time I saw my grandmother doing this, it scared me. This was my grandmother who’d raised nine real babies now taking great care to swaddle a plastic doll. I looked to my Aunt Mary, my grandmother’s primary caregiver, for some explanation or reassurance that this behavior was somehow ‘normal’. She just looked back at me and said, “Shoot me when.”

My grandmother’s relationship with these doll babies went on for a long time. I never got used to it. What was going on inside her head? Did she honestly believe they were real babies? Was she just pretending? Did she think they were her babies or was she babysitting? By mothering and comforting these dolls, was she somehow feeling mothered and comforted herself?

I never asked her. I felt too embarrassed, too unnerved. I don’t know why they made her happy, but I know they did. Has anyone else seen this happen? Does it only happen with women with Alzheimer’s? What do you think is going on?

Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of STILL ALICE, www.StillAlice.com

  6 Responses to “The Valley of the Baby Dolls”

  1. Very interesting. I've noticed that Jenny can't pass a young child without stopping to chat.

  2. Once I moved my mother's doll by her feet and my mother yelled…Don't hurt the baby!I said to her, "It's not real you know". And she said.. "I know". But she continued to treat itas real.

  3. My mother didn't hold dolls but when she was in the nursing home, she frequently went looking for "the baby."

  4. I did some surfing to see what the great and powerful web had to say about this baby doll phenomenon. Here's what I found:"Teddy bears and baby dolls can help Alzheimer’s disease patients reduce stress, agitation, and social withdrawal, British researchers found. The toys give the victims something to feel ownership and responsibility toward, and this maintains communication skills." –Infinitehealthresources.comI found several blogger-caregivers out there who write about their mothers with Alzheimer's who spend lots of time caring for their baby dolls and believe they are real.And lastly, I found the "Someone to Care For" Baby Doll designed specifically for people with Alzheimer's Disease, weighted to feel like a real baby at http://www.alzstore.com/Alzheimer's. Here's what they have to say about this baby doll relationship:Doll Therapy is one of those rare blessings in disguise for women with Alzheimer's who were once mothers. Despite the upsets of the disease, the pleasure of holding a baby once again is a joy that can be relived and enjoyed for hours on end.Nothing is more lovable than a baby. This lifelike, oh-so-huggable doll, looks and feels like a real baby with an expression that few can resist.One family wrote, "My mother has had a baby doll for two years now. She loves that doll with a passion you would not believe. She kisses it, tells it how much she loves it, and keeps it with her all the time. At first she told me she knew it wasn't real, but with it, she never feels alone. This was the best thing we ever did for her."Lisa Genova

  5. I worked as an Activities Director in a secure unit for years. Baby Dolls bacame a very important sense of comfort to many of my ladies. Whether or not they knew the babies were't real is not important-for those many moments and days they cuddled, spoke to and took care of the baby dolls they were comforted, at peace, joyful and happier. It must be difficult for families yes-but the look of contentment and calmness needs to be recognized also for the person with Alzheimer's.

  6. Dad is not into dolls, but he sure loves dogs and babies! He is 79 and has Alzheimer's and lives with me.I write a blog that includes a lot of stories about his dog, Comeer. <a href="http://www.KnowItAlz.comwww.KnowItAlz.com<br />Thanks for the research Lisa!Kathy Hatfield

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