“Oh you have twins!” one man gushed as I walked around the memory care home carrying two dolls. “Look at their little feet,” another woman smiled. The residents were lighting up at the sight of these dolls. In the nursing home another woman had very advanced dementia and could barely speak. She often had her own doll with her. She would coo to her doll and laugh and truly delight in the baby. Yet another woman with behavioral problems settled down when she finally happened upon a doll. She had never been able to have children as a young woman; now she was happy she had the baby she had always dreamed of; she carried it everywhere and slept with it.

There is a rightful concern about preserving the dignity of an aging person whether it be with respect to caring for their well being or providing activities for them. Many people worry that giving  so-called children’s toys to an aging person is demeaning. In some cases, I would agree. The appropriateness of a toy varies greatly depending upon the cognitive level of the individual and the personality. My grandmother is 91 years old and is as sharp-minded as can be. If I gave her a doll or teddy bear she would likely hold it for a moment, remark on its cuteness, and then give it a place to sit on the couch. That would be the end of the interaction because my grandmother would prefer to read a book, type an email to her local mayor, or visit with her family. But for a woman with advanced dementia, a doll can be highly appealing. Does the baby take her back to her own childhood when she played with dolls? Does it trigger memories of when she was a young mother or a proud new grandmother? It might not be possible to determine the attraction to the doll but does it matter? If it brings a woman, or a man, joy, that is all that matters.

There are many types of dolls available, from inexpensive cotton and vinyl dolls for little girls to exquisite, collectors-quality, vinyl dolls that look incredibly real. One feature I suggest you take into consideration in choosing a doll for some aging people is the doll’s eyes. A doll that always appears to be sleeping or awake with either permanently closed or open eyes could frustrate some people. An anxious, “Why won’t the baby wake up?” or “When will the baby fall asleep?” are not the desired effects. You just want to see the aging person experience peace, comfort, and happiness from the doll. If you anticipate a problem, a doll that opens and closes its eyes might be a better choice. Another factor to consider is the material with which the doll is made. Ceramic dolls can break. Cotton dolls can stain when when the owner tries to “feed” the baby. Vinyl or plastic is going to be the least amount of work for the caregiver.

For some people an animal toy is a better fit than a baby doll. There is a new product on the market that launched this month from Hasbro. It is called the Joy For All Companion Pet and it is a responsive, furry, robotic cat that meows and purrs. It appeals to the senses of touch, sight, and sound, and could provide emotional and mental stimulation. Like a doll, the cat could also help combat loneliness, a serious problem for the aging. I was thrilled to see such a product available because I know how much happiness it could bring to many elders. This toy might not be appropriate for everyone as some people do not care for cats at all. Still others might not know what to do with the toy; they would not interact with it. But the product would be an object of interest to many people with dementia. I would love to see one on the couch of every memory care and nursing home. Would it be better to have real pets around the home instead of an animatronic pet? Possibly so, but a real pet might not be a safe or feasible option as a companion for an aging individual, and a busy caregiver might not want the added responsibility of a live animal.

With dolls and toy animals, there is a general rule for people with dementia. Experts that it is not a good idea to place the toy in the aging adult’s lap, forcing him or her to accept it. The individual might experience anxiety or too great a sense of responsibility. It is better to leave the toy lying on a chair or table where the individual could happen upon it and explore it at their leisure without pressure to do so. You can make the best choice as to how to introduce the toy if you know the individual well.

As for non-cuddly toys, there are remote control cars, legos, tinker toys, gorgeous blocks, and balls. As long as they can be used safely by the recipient, these items could provide mental, visual, and tactile stimulation. Another benefit of these toys is that they might invite the interaction of others, making “playtime” that much more fun.

At some point in the aging process the lines between real and unreal can begin to blur. This time presents an opportunity to fill a void for people with a substitute for living creatures. Try some of these suggested toys and see if they are a good fit for your loved one without concerning yourself over the appropriateness of toys. You will be able to discover quickly if it is a good fit by watching the person. The true measure of toy appropriateness is not age but the happiness and comfort it produces. Let go of any reservations you might have and focus on the pleasure the items create. Bringing joy is not demeaning; it is dignified, respectful, and caring.

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