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Connection reborn

Though watching her once active, nurturing mother grapple with dementia has been one of life’s hardest challenges, Jacksonville resident Tami Paulson says a program designed to put lifelike baby dolls in the arms of memory care patients offered her family a reminder that some things cannot truly be lost.

Nyla Gunderson, a resident at Kinsington Place residential care facility in Grants Pass, is one of the first participants in the Alzheimer’s Doll Therapy Program.

A partnership between Team Senior Referral Services and Home Instead Senior Care, the program provides free therapy dolls to patients throughout Southern Oregon.

Research shows that doll therapy can be calming to people who have agitation as a result of a dementia disease such as Alzheimer’s. The dolls give patients something to focus on, providing them with purpose and a feeling of connection.

“There was a stuffed dog at first that my brother bought her like two years ago. She would carry that around quite a bit, but she was always a dog person, so we didn’t think much of it. But I think somebody at the place actually got a doll — and not even one of these lifelike dolls they have now — and I think mom actually kind of confiscated the baby because she just wanted to hold it,” Paulson said.

“When they presented her with the doll, it was like she remembered, and she just immediately started holding it like a baby, kissing it, bouncing it a little bit and then she turned it to look at her and she goes, ‘I love you’ to the baby doll.”

Jamie Callahan, founder and co-CEO of Team Senior, said the dolls prompt a sense of purpose and often cause patients to talk or hum to “their babies.”

Callahan recalled her grandmother, who has advanced dementia, saying, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Callahan said the dolls are an immeasurable gift for patients and their families.

“It’s like an instinctual nurturing that immediately returns,” Callahan said. “It’s pretty amazing. They can have advanced stages of dementia, but they’re still in tune enough to recognize, ‘This is a baby and it requires nurturing.’”

Peggy Webster, executive director of Heirloom Living Centers, said seeing residents light up at the sight of the dolls is heartwarming.

“These babies are so very lifelike. They’re weighted, their heads are a little bit heavy, and they weigh between five and six pounds. They wear diapers and they have real hair. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to give to these residents,” Webster said.

“Dolls have been used in senior care for years and years and years. It’s been around forever, I’m sure, but these dolls are a little different than the dolls you buy at Walmart. They’re a much different quality, and they feel so real. With Nyla, being a mom was one of her greatest joys, and now we’ve been able to bring a little part of that back to her. It still shows she has that motherly love so deep within her. It gives her a meaningful purpose.”

Paulson said it was emotional for her family to see her mother connect with her own doll. It brought back a glimpse of the loving and nurturing mother that Gunderson, who had nine siblings and two children of her own, had been.

“It was really cool. We were, of course, pretty emotional about it. The more that she fades from knowing us and what’s going on, it’s pretty hard. This gave her something where at least we could see a glimpse of her, something that’s still there.”

For more information, or to request a free therapy doll, call 541-295-8230 or see www.teamsenior.org/doll-therapy.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Jamie Callahan, founder and co-CEO of Team Senior, watches Nyla Gunderson connect with a therapy doll at Kinsington Place residential care facility in Grants Pass. Courtesy photo