The poll of 2,491 care home owners, managers and staff, also found 72% think there are benefits to people with dementia using the dolls.
Nearly three quarters of care staff view the dolls in a positive light, but doll therapy has left some respondents sitting on the fence, with 23% ‘unsure’ whether they provide a benefit, while 5% say they do not.
Robotic therapy pets, which respond to touch and sound and provide stimulation and companionship, are also growing in popularity in care homes, with one in 10 care home staff (11%), saying their care homes have them. Robotic therapy pets mimic real animals and include life-like dogs which bark and furry cats which miaow and purr.
Doll therapy and robotic pet therapy are becoming more recognised as a way of calming and comforting people with dementia, although doll therapy in particular can be controversial as it can be challenging for relatives to see their family member cradling a doll and there have been suggestions it infantilises people with dementia.
Experts in the field have a number of tips for those considering the therapy. These include introducing the doll gradually, using the doll at appropriate times and ensuring people do not neglect their own needs in favour of the dolls.
Sue Learner, editor of carehome.co.uk, said:
“To see your mum or grandma cuddling a doll and caring for it like a real baby can be very disturbing. But if the residents are getting comfort from this, it is good so many care homes are embracing this controversial therapy.
“People with dementia can be anxious and distressed and doll therapy has been found to be very calming. However to allay relatives’ concerns, it is important care homes fully explain what doll therapy is and how it can help. Caring for a doll or a robotic dog or cat may make those with dementia feel needed and wanted and it may remind them of a time when they were a parent of a young child.
“There are cases where the person with dementia will forego food so they can feed their baby or sleep on the floor so the baby can have the bed. So the way they relate to the doll or robotic pet does need to be closely monitored.”
Lynne Loughlin, senior activities coordinator at Barchester Iddenshall Hall and Beeston View Dementia Unit in Tarporley, uses therapy dolls for its residents with dementia. She said:
“We have found they work really well. We don’t give them directly to the residents. We wait for the residents to approach the dolls themselves.
“They tend to think they are real and enjoy cuddling them and taking care of them. They like sitting with the dolls and talking to them. It offers them comfort and seems to give the residents a sense of calm.
“We have explained to the residents’ relatives and friends about the dolls and how they can bring about a real sense of wellbeing for their loved ones with dementia. They have had no objections as they can see they work and the residents enjoy having them.”
Dr Gary Mitchell, who wrote ‘Doll Therapy in Dementia Care’ and teaches nursing at Queen’s University in Belfast, said:
“The research has consistently demonstrated that doll therapy can have a life-changing impact for some people living with dementia by increasing levels of wellbeing and reducing need for behaviour modifying medication.
“So it is excellent to see a high percentage of care homes utilising the therapy in their practice. It is also encouraging to that care homes are also utilising robotic therapy pets – this intervention builds on the same principles of attachment for which doll therapy works so well.
“While these interventions are very positive and the care homes who have introduced these innovative practices should be commended, I would always caution that provision of doll therapy or robotic pet therapy should never be a substitution for human contact. Instead the interventions should be incorporated into an already socially enriched day at the care home for the person living with dementia.”