Amanda DeGusipe knows how to relieve the anxiety experienced by older people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
She provides them with realistic baby dolls.
DeGusipe, a nurse at the Gateway Hospice, created the Marybelle Baby Doll Project, which collects and delivers babies to patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s at assisted living facilities and senior centers in the South West of the Pennsylvania for the elderly to love and care for.
On Monday, DeGusipe, of Uniontown, Fayette County, kicked off his distribution of Christmas dolls, arriving on horseback and carriage to drop babies to residents of McMurray Hills Manor in McMurray.
“Patients love their babies. Families have told me that the drugs and other alternatives did not help, but the baby did. Holding and comforting the baby, feeding him, caring for him improved his comfort and reduced his stress, ”said DeGusipe. “It’s amazing, it’s really heartwarming.”
DeGusipe started Project Marybelle in 2019, in honor of his grandmother, Marybelle Smith, who battled dementia in her later years.
Her grandmother, DeGusipe said, was a strong and independent woman who raised 11 children. After being diagnosed with dementia, the only thing that comforted her was a doll that she loved to hold and cuddle.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeGusipe observed that family visits and socializing in facilities were suspended or changed, and how they were turning the world of dementia patients upside down.
“I thought, what can we do that is tangible for them, and I thought about my grandmother, and how holding her doll made sense of her purpose and how she was comforted by her baby and how that soothed her, ”DeGusipe said. “I never thought that in a million years, Project Marybelle would turn into what it has. “
Since its inception, the Marybelle Baby Doll Project has distributed over 500 baby dolls donated by individuals, schools, colleges, churches, funeral homes and other organizations.
Purple drop boxes for doll donations have been set up in southwestern Pennsylvania, and donations made through December 20 will be distributed to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients before Christmas.
McMurray Hills Manor resident Betty Decedur, 93, received her doll, Annabelle, from Project Marybelle at the start of the pandemic and is carrying Annabelle wherever she goes.
“Mom never lets Annabelle go; she’s with her 24 hours a day, ”said her son, Jeff Decedur. “She loves Annabelle. It gives her a relaxed feeling, gives her a sense of comfort. We treat Annabelle like family.
During Monday’s doll gift distribution, Betty – whom Jeff Decedur described as the ideal and loving mom from ‘Leave it to Beaver’ who later became a beloved sergeant in her hometown of Ambridge – sang the Andrews Sisters’ “Apple Blossom Time” to her doll, something she does often.
“Mum’s behavior is that she is very happy all the time, but Annabelle has helped tremendously through COVID, especially when I was only able to visit her through a window. Annabelle is absolutely a blessing to her,” said said Jeff Decedur.
Research shows that using a doll or teddy bear can be an effective way to comfort people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
“I’ve seen it in my grandmother and I’ve seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia that holding a doll can help reduce the stress and restlessness they often feel,” DeGusipe said. “Doll therapy, holding these baby dolls, is a way to put responsibility and structure back into their lives. It gives them something to take care of and it helps encourage patients who are suffering from depression. “
Dolls, DeGusipe said, can take people with illnesses related to memory loss back to a time when they had children or grandchildren.
“They remember taking care of their own children. Mothers never forget to take care of our children. We have never had a negative reaction to a baby doll. I’ll see someone sitting in the room holding their baby, kissing her, and it’s so sweet. It makes me so happy, ”DeGusipe said.
DeGusipe described how one of the residents of a long-term care facility gives the director of nursing care for her doll every day while she goes to lunch. Another deceased resident requested that her doll be buried with her.
DeGusipe also collects donations of teddy bears and restless aprons – aprons with a variety of items, like zippers, buttons, and bells to engage and stimulate people with memory loss illnesses.
She recommends donating dolls with soft bodies that are weighted and that are between 16 and 20 inches long. Doll suggestions are available on the Marybelle Baby Doll Project Facebook page.
“It’s really humbling how many people care about each other,” DeGusipe said. “It feels good to give back, especially right now. It’s something that really makes a difference.
Donations can be mailed or dropped off at the Pittsburgh Gateway Hospice office, 9380 McKnight Rd., Suite 201, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15237. Or, contact Amanda DeGusipe at 412-737-2436 to drop off baby dolls at the office. Gateway in Washington at 95 W. Beau St., Suite 510, Washington, Pa., 15301. Or visit the Facebook page for additional information or questions about donations.