Group de­liv­ers baby dolls to Alzheimer’s pa­tients

The Prince George Citizen - - Seniors - Cathy FREE

Al­most 15 years ago, Sandy Cam­bron no­ticed her mother-in­law, Pearl Walker, had be­come with­drawn and quiet after she moved into a nurs­ing home for Alzheimer’s pa­tients in Shep­herdsville, Ky.

“We tried ev­ery­thing – photo al­bums, old sto­ries – but noth­ing worked,” she said.

“It was re­ally hard on ev­ery­one to see how she had changed.”

Then one day while Cam­bron was in a toy store, she had an idea: Why not give Pearl a baby doll so she could feel as if she were car­ing for some­thing again? While she was at it, why not give one to all the other care cen­tre res­i­dents?

The plan worked. As soon as Cam­bron gave Pearl the doll, wrapped in a soft pink blan­ket, her mother-in-law’s face lighted up.

“She started talk­ing again and she never went any­where with­out that baby,” said Cam­bron.

“She took ‘baby’ to the din­ing room with her and slept with her in her arms ev­ery night. When she passed away a year later, we even buried her with that well-loved baby doll.”

In the fol­low­ing decade, Cam­bron and her hus­band, Wayne Cam­bron, con­tin­ued to buy dozens of dolls in Pearl’s mem­ory, dress­ing them in cute footie pa­ja­mas and hand­ing them out to res­i­dents of care cen­tres near their home in Shep­herdsville ev­ery Christ­mas, in­stead of giv­ing gifts to each other.

Now Pearl’s Mem­ory Ba­bies is a non­profit that has do­nated more than 300 dolls to se­niors with Alzheimer’s dis­ease or de­men­tia at nurs­ing homes through­out west­ern Ken­tucky and south­ern In­di­ana since Fe­bru­ary 2018.

The Cam­brons started the charity with help from Shan­non Gray Blair, a co-worker at the op­tom­e­try store and clinic where Sandy Cam­bron once worked.

“When Sandy of­fered to give a doll to my mom, who had Alzheimer’s, I knew this was some­thing I wanted to be a part of,” said Blair, 47.

She knew it again last year after she posted Valen­tine’s Day pho­tos on Face­book of se­niors re­act­ing to a batch of dolls she and Cam­bron de­liv­ered to a lo­cal nurs­ing home. The post went vi­ral overnight with more than 210,000 shares.

“Just like that, we had a new hobby,” said Cam­bron, 71, whose home has been over­taken with baby dolls, in­fant cloth­ing, fleece blan­kets and di­a­pers, along with stuffed “ther­apy” an­i­mals for se­niors who once owned pets and who might pre­fer to have a dog or cat.

With al­most $15,000 do­nated to the cause through GoFundMe, Cam­bron, who is now re­tired, spends a lot of time shop­ping for dolls, one­sies and baby caps.

“I had no idea that it would take off like this. It’s a simple idea, but it works,” she said.

“Some peo­ple cry when you hand them their baby. Even though we don’t know ex­actly what they’re think­ing, you can tell that the doll has helped bring back some kind of nice mem­ory.”

When Alzheimer’s pa­tients hold their dolls close, they re­ceive ther­apy and com­fort in a way that can­not be mea­sured, said Elise Hinch­man of Sayre Chris­tian Vil­lage, a non­profit retirement com­mu­nity in Lex­ing­ton, Ky.

“It’s over­whelm­ing to see how they nat­u­rally fall into a rhythm of sway­ing, rock­ing and coo­ing,” said Hinch­man, the mar­ket­ing and de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor at Sayre Chris­tian Vil­lage.

“The way they light up is like tak­ing a step back in time. You can imag­ine them hold­ing their own chil­dren.”

While de­men­tia takes away memories, it does not rob peo­ple of their abil­ity to love, she said.

“They are still mom or dad in­side,” Hinch­man said.

“Some res­i­dents feel a real pur­pose in tak­ing care of their ba­bies be­cause it is ‘im­por­tant’ work. That nur­tur­ing in­stinct is so in­nate, and the doll ba­bies bring back fond memories of long ago.”

Work­ers’ eyes filled with happy tears at the retirement com­mu­nity on June 19, when Cam­bron and Blair wheeled in sev­eral bright red wag­ons loaded with 41 dolls and stuffed an­i­mals.

“De­liv­ery day was some­thing I’ll never for­get,” said Karen Ve­nis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at Sayre Chris­tian Vil­lage, where 60 per cent of the res­i­dents are at or be­low the poverty level.

“After se­lect­ing the per­fect baby for the res­i­dent, Sandy would qui­etly lean down and present each doll baby,” said Ve­nis.

“Those who wit­nessed it would swear the doll be­came real be­fore our eyes.”

Blair said she notes the trans­for­ma­tion that hap­pens ev­ery time she de­liv­ers a doll. She re­called one woman who re­ceived her baby doll while her daugh­ter was visit­ing.

“She grabbed her new baby, looked at the doll and then her daugh­ter and said, ‘This thing is cuter than my own,’” Blair re­called.

“Once a mom, al­ways a mom. We all laughed at that.”

Help­ing Cam­bron with Pearl’s Mem­ory Ba­bies has made the grief from los­ing her mother to Alzheimer’s last year more bear­able, said Blair.

“We de­liver th­ese ba­bies, then we cry,” she said.

“It’s over­whelm­ing, but it’s ther­a­peu­tic.”

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO COUR­TESY OF SANDY CAM­BRON

Pearl Walker with her son, Wayne Cam­bron, after she was given a baby doll in 2005 as Alzheimer’s ther­apy. Pearl’s Mem­ory Ba­bies is named after her.

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