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Try Giving Your Loved One With Alzheimer's a Stuffed Animal

03/12/2015 11:30 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Little Stuffed Animals for Ed: When Ed, my beloved Romanian soul mate of 30 years, had Alzheimer's I was devastated at first. I couldn't find any meaningful way to relate to him. He couldn't praise me for my accomplishments as he had always done. He couldn't advise me on my problems anymore. And I was sure I'd never be able to accept the situation.

Then, as I recount in my uplifting, award-winning book (Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy), one day on a whim and against my better judgment I brought him a little stuffed animal. Much to my surprise he loved it. We started playing simple games with it. It was fun. It was like a mother playing with her little 2-year-old. So I took him more animals and he loved each one more than the one before.

After a few weeks of this I realized that my heart had changed forever. I had finally found a way to relate to him -- one that was truly satisfying for both of us. I was delighted to see his happiness. When I realized I could bring pleasure to my "new Ed" it was more than enough to make up for the loss of my "old Ed" and our previous relationship.

A Stuffed Animal for Dotty: Another example of the benefits of stuffed animals for people with dementia is Harvey, the stuffed parrot Bob DeMarco, founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room, gave to his mother, Dotty.

When you talk to Harvey he flaps his wings and repeats whatever you say to him. Bob says that Harvey became Dotty's best friend. She would often sit and talk to him. In fact she would tell Harvey things she wouldn't even tell Bob, such as that she had a headache. (Harvey was subsequently replaced by Pete the Repeat Parrot, available on Amazon.)

Japanese Research on Stuffed Animals: A Japanese research study was conducted on the benefits of stuffed animals for people with severe dementia. In this study a gorilla, a tiger and a dog were given to patients with severe dementia living in a nursing home.

According to the study,

"The occupational therapist observed the patients' activities while they played with the stuffed animals. They were classified into six categories (no reaction, close observation, talking, clapping, patting the toy, taking care of the toy).

The total time spent in the various kinds of activity was recorded. Most of the patients were interested in the toys, and they looked much happier and less agitated. They became accustomed to the toys day by day. The dog was by far the favorite toy and the one the patients could relate to the most."

Other Observed Benefits of Stuffed Animals: Numerous anecdotal reports list the following benefits. They say that stuffed animals can:

  • Distract and calm a person who is upset

  • Increase happiness
  • Provide comfort
  • Provide the opportunity for hugs
  • Provide a focal point for interaction with loved ones
  • Remind them of a previous, beloved pet they had
  • Give the person warm, nurturing feelings of caring for another
  • Stuffed Animals vs Live Ones: Stuffed animals can have the following advantages over live ones:

    • You don't have to worry about safety issues, such as biting or tripping over

  • No one has to bring the animal in on a regular basis.
  • You can provide pets to numerous residents in the same facility at the same time
  • Residents can have the stuffed animals with them 24/7
  • Stuffed animals may be especially helpful for those in the later stages
  • Benefits of Stuffed Animals vs Dolls: It's well known that dolls can also reach people with Alzheimer's on a deep level. However, since men typically don't want to play with a doll, a stuffed animal could be a logical substitute for them.

    Possible Objections to This Activity: Some people object to giving their loved ones stuffed animals or dolls, saying it is demeaning. But if it gives the person pleasure it should be considered. After all we have to interact with them in their world; not try to drag them into ours.

    Has anyone given stuffed animals or dolls to their loved one? If so, what was their reaction?

    Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer's caregivers.