Doll therapy helps people with dementia

Woman_with_dollsThe feelings many people get when they hold a sleeping baby in their arms are ones of warmth, comfort and happiness. Doll therapy can be a very therapeutic activity for those with dementia who don’t have actual babies in their lives.

Many of the behaviors that we see in those with dementia – pacing, agitation, boredom, sadness – are related to the idea that they don’t have a feeling of purpose. Providing a doll to someone with dementia (especially mothers, but this works with males and non-mothers as well) brings out the natural desire and ability to express affection, to nurture and to care for someone.

Doll therapy has been associated with a number of benefits, including a reduction in episodes of distress, an increase in general well-being, improved appetite and more engagement with others around them. 

I have seen first-hand that some patients who are given dolls become less agitated and need less medication. But doll therapy does need to be done with care and consideration.

Tips for using doll therapy 

For the most success, it is important that doll therapy is used with respect for autonomy. This means that the person with dementia should be able to exercise their right to engage with the dolls if they wish; dolls should not be forced upon them.

When introducing a doll to your loved one, consider the following suggestions adapted from alzheimers.net:

  • Do not call the doll a doll. Give it a name.
  • Do not purchase a doll that cries out loud, as this can be upsetting for the person with dementia.
  • Do not force the doll on your loved one. Allow them to be stimulated, to approach and to hold the doll in their own time.
  • Provide a bassinet or small crib for the doll.
  • Communicate the purpose of the doll to anyone who may be providing care for the person with dementia.

Other dementia therapies

In caring for those with moderate to advanced dementia, the typical medical approach has generally been a pharmacological one, experimenting with different medications to help with some of the distress that one may experience throughout the day.

There are many therapies that can be used to provide well-being without compromising the person’s function, dignity and quality of life. Along with doll therapy—which is somewhat new—common therapy options are music therapy, pet therapy and baby therapy, all of which aid in decreasing anxiety and improving mood in those with dementia.

Next steps

Renee_Gadwa_headshotRenee Gadwa, MBA, is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center. She is passionate about improving awareness, care and support services for those living with dementia and their loved ones. Along with a bachelor’s degree in health science and a minor in psychology and an MBA in healthcare management, Gadwa has nearly 10 years of experience in dementia care, education and support in the long-term care setting.


Neurosciences logoThe Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) was established at the University of Michigan Health System through affiliation with the Department of Neurology and aims to conduct and promote research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders; ensure state-of-the-art care for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia; and enhance the public’s and health professionals’ understanding of dementia through education and outreach efforts. The infrastructure of the Center stems from a 20-year history as an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.