Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Valley of the Baby Dolls

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?


Judi Garvey-Lefebvre said...

My grandmother had a doll baby too. This one was made for her by a talented woman who matched eye and hair color to my G;ma's when she was young. This baby was always with G'ma. In her first life, G'ma had 11 children. In this last bit of life she had 12. When G'ma died, we buried her with the doll baby that she loved so much. It had brought comfort to the life we saw as mixed up.

Judi Garvey-Lefebvre said...

By the way, we let G'ma "go" as her dementia/Alzheimers developed. After that, we loved her as just a sweet lady. We could accept the disease this way and her inability to be Mom or G'ma. She just had lots of company.

No more Hobo said...

Yes, I was a consultant for the incontinence program in nursing homes and witnessed the "baby rocking" with many of the women. Not sure if it's the doll or the act of rocking that soothes the person...perhaps a combination of both. Plus, one doesn't really need to have a meaningful conversation with a doll, so I thought that might be a comfort as well.

Ewolf.girl said...

My mom has EOAD. She is currently 73 and has been diagnosed for about 8 yrs. now. She lives in an Alzheimer's care facility. There is a woman Teresa who lives there who is in her 90's. She has become obsessed with this baby doll. Once when I was there she asked me if I could hold the doll so she could feed her ice-cream. She then proceeded to spoon the ice-cream, not in her mouth, but in the baby doll's armpit. I didn't know what to do. An aide came over and brought a napkin to help clean the baby doll up. ;-(
The next time Teresa, who suffers frequently from delusions got into a heated argument w/another resident because she thought that woman wanted to 'steal her baby'. I was trying to calm her down. She asked me if I would help her get the baby out of there and to her house. I was trying to distract her by telling her what a pretty baby it was and that she was a good mother to her. She then said "Well maybe the baby would be better off here." I agreed.
When my sis and I were first visiting Alzheimer's facilities we were freaked out by the baby dolls and baby carriages there. We've since come to realize that it is a comfort to these people who A) are reverting back in age and may well be 'in' their childbearing years, reliving their parenting years. And B) it probably helps them to feel useful, as they lose more and more of their faculties. We put a rag doll in my mom's room; so far it's still a 'decoration'. Though my mom was recently telling me that she would like to adopt a baby. Best just to go along, and distract her with something else in the room.

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Stephanie Warner said...

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Carrie Kayla Reynolds said...

In my own case it was just over four years ago when my Mum began to sound different on the phone. She lived back East with my siblings and my husband and I were living on the West coast and in phone calls it became apparent that my Mum's voice no longer had the same tones of excitement and humor that she used to; and instead it was very flat. At the same time she began to tell us about a situation at work that just didn't seem possible; she was complaining that a group of fellow workers were conspiring to get her. Although Mum had much academic success as a teenager, her behavior had become increasingly odd during the past years. She quit seeing her friends and no longer seemed to care about her appearance or social pursuits. She began wearing the same clothes each day and seldom bathed. She lived with several family members but rarely spoke to any of us. Obviously this whole story seemed very unbelievable and we sensed something was wrong but had no clue as to what it could be. We recommended that my Mum quit her job and look for something else - as we began to wonder if she had a "mental breakdown" and would get better once out of the stressful job situation.
In the case of Mum, she was having persecurtory delusions, auditory hallucinations and negative symptoms that had lasted for at least Three years. All of these symptoms fit with a diagnosis of Dementia. Her story reflects a common case, in which a high-functioning young adult goes through a major decline in day-to-day skills. Although family and friends may feel this is a loss of the person they knew, the illness can be treated and a good outcome is possible as it all got better when we started using a herbal medicine for her through Aparajita.
My recommendation to people who are either wondering if they have DEmentia or wondering if a friend or loved one has Dementia should contact I think one of our key problems was that we didn't do this in the early days of my Mum's illness as we never thought of a natural alternative for her.