How ‘Doll Therapy’ Can Help The Memory-Impaired

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Monday, November 14, 2016 3:20 pm EST

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CBS Los Angeles

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BEVERLY HILLS (CBSLA.com) — A walk through the Sunrise Senior Living in Beverly Hills, one may think children live there too because there are life-like dolls, cribs and even baby changing tables. But those items are actually part of what is called “doll therapy,” a treatment to help the memory-impaired.

When CBS2’s Jennifer Kastner was there, Vivian Guzofsky was holding two life-like dolls – a boy in her left arm, a girl in her right arm.

Guzofsky is among the residents at the facility undergoing doll therapy. She may not know if those dolls she was holding were actually dolls or children. But it did not matter to her caretaker and family.

“I just go along with their story – whatever they want it to be. They think it’s their baby, then it’s their baby. I’m not the one to tell them it’s not their baby,” said Jessica Butler, Life Enrichment Manager at the facility.

Doll therapy has become an integral part of life at the senior residence. The idea is to engage patients and provide a sense of purpose. Severe memory loss can lead to confusion, agitation, withdrawal and isolation.

Ellen Swarts is the daughter of Marilou Roos. The 87-year-old has late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease and is mostly non-verbal. Swarts supports doll therapy.

“It’s hard to see mom this way,” Swarts said. “I know it means a lot to her and gives her a little bit of happiness. So I’m okay with it – whether it’s pretend or whether she thinks it’s real. Doesn’t matter really.”

But one critic said doll therapy does not meet the definition of therapy. “It’s almost like everything that everyone’s doing they’re calling therapy. You can call anything therapy that you want to. But you need a criteria for what is therapy,” said Beverly Sanborn.

She runs program development at Belmont Village Senior Living in Westwood, where there are no dolls. But there are drumming, painting and other activities for residents to do.

Sanborn said dolls may provide comfort but don’t fit into the definition of  therapy. “It has to be something that’s new to the brain, and it has to be a mental stretch,” she explained.

A drum circle may not seem like a brain game activity. But dementia residents are challenged to create and follow rhythms.

Art projects require thought about sequencing. Sanborn said mind exercises and analytical reasoning are having a real impact.

“It appears that we are able to maintain functioning a lot longer than without,” Saborn added.

And while experts back at Sunrise also push art therapy and brain teasers, they firmly believe interacting with dolls is invaluable.

“It’s a beautiful thing when you see that resident. It puts a smile on their face,” said caretaker Jason Malone.

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