'A sense of responsibility': Winnipeg care facility uses doll therapy for people with Alzheimer's

Doll therapy includes singing lullabies, putting the dolls to sleep, bathing dolls, changing clothes and taking the dolls for walks using a stroller.

Doll therapy includes activities like singing lullabies and putting the dolls to sleep

A resident at Actionmarguerite holds a weighted baby doll, used by the facility during doll therapy. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

For residents of a long-term care facility in Winnipeg, a commonplace toy has become a source of joy and companionship.

Recreation therapist Susie Nel Piad uses doll therapy to treat people living with Alzheimer's disease and dementia at Actionmarguerite in St. Boniface. The therapy includes singing lullabies, putting the dolls to sleep, bathing dolls, changing clothes and taking the dolls for walks using a stroller.

"It gives them a sense of responsibility, it awakens some feelings that they're still capable of loving," she said, adding that doll therapy can also combat sadness and depression.

"It's also a great tool to reminisce about their childhood, to reminisce about their motherhood or fatherhood days."

Susie Nelpiad, a recreation therapist at Actionmarguerite introduced doll therapy five years ago. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

She said in the minds of many of Actionmarguerite's residents the dolls are real babies, but others are aware that they are interacting with a doll.

"We do not push what the reality is to our residents, but we tend to communicate with them in forms that make sense to them at the moment," she said.

Josée Fournier, manager of Actionmarguerite's resident services, says the facility is trying to reduce its use of medication for treating physically or verbally violent residents, and redirection techniques like doll therapy are part of that process.  

Josée Fournier, manager of Actionmarguerite's resident services, says doll therapy helps keep residents busy with activities that mean something to them. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

"We call it a therapy, because it brings so many good feelings for the residents," she said.

The dolls used during doll therapy are closer to the weight of an actual baby than a toy-store doll, and their features are more realistic.

"You want to fight loneliness, you want to fight apathy, you want to fight boredom, the only way of doing this is to keep them busy with activities that mean something to them," Fournier said.

'Treat the elderly with respect'

Nel Piad introduced doll therapy to Actionmarguerite five years ago. She says there are not many places in Manitoba that provide long-term therapy for people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia, and even fewer use doll therapy.

Initially there was some resistance from staff and family of the residents, she said, which is why Actionmarguerite increased its education about the program.

A resident at Actionmarguerite holds a baby doll, used by the facility for doll therapy, which the facility introduced as a type of recreation and stress reduction. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

"We had a difficult start, because not everyone believes in doll therapy. There are many myths," Nel Piad said.

"I'd like to erase in [people's] minds the myth that having baby doll therapy is infantilizing. Or [the thought that we're] treating the elderly as kids when we give them [the] baby. It's how you run baby doll therapy. When you treat the elderly with respect … the baby doll doesn't really matter."

In the Actionmarguerite special needs behavioural unit there are 44 people participating in doll therapy, but it's also being used at other Actionmarguerite facilities in Winnipeg, Nel Piad said.