The Valley of the Baby Dolls
I recently read ‘DANCING WITH ROSE: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s’ by Lauren Kessler. In it, she reveals the inner life of an Alzheimer’s care facility. I liked so much about this book but want to share one part in particular for now.
Early on in her job at the care facility, Kessler tells us about a group of ‘doll mothers.’
“One lady is sitting in the rocking chair, rocking her doll back and forth, back and forth, her eyes half-closed, her lips upturned in a half-smile. She has that dreamy look mothers have when they rock their babies. At one of the dining room tables sit Billie and two other doll mothers, all holding their swaddled babies to their chests.”
She goes on to describe both the residents and the workers fussing over the dolls, everyone playing along as if the dolls were real babies.
My grandmother who had Alzheimer’s did this. She used to sit on her couch and hug them and coo at them. I think there were two dolls. I vaguely remember a stuffed bear named Henry as well, but it was the dolls she loved and mothered. I remember hearing her tell them how beautiful they were.
The first time I saw my grandmother doing this, it scared me. This was my grandmother who’d raised nine real babies now taking great care to swaddle a plastic doll. I looked to my Aunt Mary, my grandmother’s primary caregiver, for some explanation or reassurance that this behavior was somehow ‘normal’. She just looked back at me and said, “Shoot me when.”
My grandmother’s relationship with these doll babies went on for a long time. I never got used to it. What was going on inside her head? Did she honestly believe they were real babies? Was she just pretending? Did she think they were her babies or was she babysitting? By mothering and comforting these dolls, was she somehow feeling mothered and comforted herself?
I never asked her. I felt too embarrassed, too unnerved. I don’t know why they made her happy, but I know they did. Has anyone else seen this happen? Does it only happen with women with Alzheimer’s? What do you think is going on?