Kaylee Ciavarelli practically grew up in a nursing home. Her mother has worked in nursing homes for most of Kaylee’s life and used to bring her along to work sometimes. Now her mom works in the same nursing home where her Grandma Dola currently resides.
Kaylee first got the idea to give her grandmother a doll after her mother told her about how Grandma Dola had been complaining about another resident who wasn’t taking proper care of her “baby.”
It was clear to Kaylee and her mother that Grandma Dola, who has dementia, thought the other resident’s doll was a real baby and had serious concerns for the child’s well-being. That made Kaylee wonder whether her grandmother’s own maternal instinct was kicking in and whether she wouldn’t benefit from having a doll of her own.
Doll therapy among dementia patients is a controversial issue, as not many studies have been done on the long-term efficacy of the therapy on facility residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some experts maintain that having dolls or stuffed animals helps dementia patients feel a sense of purpose, decreases their anxiety, improves communication, and reduces the need for medication. Others think it can be degrading and isn’t a replacement for studied therapies and medications. And perhaps both are right in certain contexts.
But Kaylee wasn’t concerned about the research; she just wanted to do whatever she could to make her grandma happy. So she set out to get her grandmother a lifelike “baby.”
When she did, she says the transformation was beautiful. Grandma Dola, who is prone to frustration and anxiety, became calmer and smiled more.
That made Kaylee begin thinking about how dolls might help other dementia patients, who, she knew from previous experience, often have little to no interaction outside of the time staff members are able to spend caring for them.
Since then, she’s been collecting money to buy realistic dolls to give to other nursing homes. The dolls cost about $65 each, but they’re carefully designed to weigh what about as much as a real baby and be soft and cuddly to hold. Donors can pick a particular doll in memory of a lost family member, but otherwise, Kaylee picks out the dolls and posts photos on Facebook so donors can see what their money has purchased.
Kaylee says caregivers have noticed a huge difference in their clients since receiving the baby dolls.
“It just blew up,” says Kaylee. “They feel like they have purpose again. They forget about a lot of things, but they remember how to nurture.”
“Whenever I see that baby in their lap, they turn caregiver,” says Michael Davis, administrator at the IOOF Home in Mason City.
He says he’s even seen the dolls help deescalate issues between residents who are aggressive or disoriented and uneasy.
Kaylee already works two jobs and is a hairdresser on the side. But she hasn’t let that stop her from applying to create a non-profit out of her newest passion, Dola Dolls. Right now, she’s working on putting out donation jars at local businesses.
The next step will be to find something similar to the Dola Dolls that works well for male dementia patients. Some of her dolls have gone to men, and they seem to enjoy them, but Kaylee thinks there might be something better out there for male nursing home residents.
“It’s become such a beautiful thing,” she says. “It makes me feel so good to do it and it’s something just so simple, so simple.”
Way to go, Kaylee! Thank you for doing all you can to make life better for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.Whizzco