Washington state city group offers dolls, stuffed animals to help people with dementia

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It’s hard to separate MaryAnn St. Mars from her baby.

St. Mars isn’t a new mother, but rather a 75-year-old Woodland resident with dementia, who has four children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. None of them are her “baby,” which she can be found holding, and even falling asleep with, in her recliner in her living room. The baby is a stuffed doll, and it’s given her a lot of joy.

St. Mars received the doll free of charge from Hope Dementia Support Group, a Vancouver nonprofit that offers care to partners of those experiencing memory loss through support groups, along with other resources. The idea is the dolls offer comfort to and help calm people with dementia, which includes symptoms such as irritability and frustration.

For St. Mars, the doll has provided a sense of purpose in her current state. As her husband, Ted, says, “She has no hobbies, nothing to entertain herself, other than getting into trouble.” Her husband likes to leave out coasters, cards and envelopes because St. Mars likes to collect them and hide them. She also likes to straighten things up and fold blankets. Her husband believes the doll has brought out some of the motherly instincts St. Mars developed with her own children.

Her doll provides “instant happiness, regardless of her mood swings” any time it’s brought out, Ted St. Mars said.

“She loves that little baby,” he continued. “She treats it like an honest-to-God baby.”

Lynn Crawford, the executive director for Hope, said the baby dolls provide calmness to those with dementia, as do the stuffed animals Hope also distributes. This can decrease the daily struggle for primary caretakers, and in turn decrease their stress levels. So far Hope has presented about 10 dolls and stuffed animals to patients.

“It’s very gratifying to see how much people enjoy these dolls,” Crawford said. “People who have dementia have a tendency to — they remember long-term memories. They remember their childhood, and remember when their children were babies. So they really appreciate the baby dolls.”