Lifelike dolls or soft toy animals can have great benefits for some people with dementia, particularly in the later stages. They can promote feelings of relaxation and pleasure, and are considered a form of therapy – not merely ‘playing’ with a toy.
Holding or just being with a doll or soft toy animal, such as a cat or dog, can be particularly helpful for people who are withdrawn, restless, distressed or anxious, improving their wellbeing and ability to communicate.
The sensation of holding a doll or toy animal can be soothing. It might remind them of a time when they had young children or a pet of their own.
‘Caring’ for a doll or soft toy can also give people with dementia a renewed sense of purpose and help them connect with the outside world. This can have a knock-on effect on their energy, activity levels and mood.
Introduce the doll or soft toy animal gradually. You could place it on a chair before the person enters the room. Wait and see if and how they respond
Let them discover the doll or toy animal in their own time. If they show no interest, don’t try to press it on them. Some people with dementia simply aren’t interested in dolls and soft toys, but you can always try again another day
You could offer a choice of different dolls or soft animals to pick from
If the person is interested in the doll or soft toy, use it as a way to connect with them. You could ask them questions about the doll or animal, referring to it as he, she, or they
If they have difficulty communicating, you could make observations about the doll or toy animal instead. For a doll, for example, you could say: “doesn’t she have a nice face?” or “what a pretty dress.” For an animal, you could say: “what lovely fur”, or “it looks like (name of a pet from the past)”
It’s important to allow the person with dementia to make their own decisions about using a doll – don’t force them to look at it, touch it or hold it if they aren’t interested.
It’s also a good idea to discuss your plans to give the person a doll or toy animal with other family members. Some people worry about the person being treated like a child, but explaining the benefits may ease their concerns.
The person with dementia may become very attached to their doll or toy animal and be upset if someone else picks it up. You might want to avoid having the toy out in situations where this may happen – for example, in a communal area of a care home or when a grandchild is visiting. You could also provide other toys for young visitors or other care home residents, so they’re less likely to be attracted to the person’s special toy.
Be aware that some people with dementia neglect their own needs to look after the doll or soft animal – for instance, trying to give it their food or putting it in their bed while they sleep in a chair. You could consider keeping the toy out of sight at mealtimes, or letting the person have it during the day rather than at bedtime.
If you have questions or concerns about doll therapy or any other aspect of dementia, call the free, confidential Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except Christmas Day) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following Dementia UK resources may also be helpful.