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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