There is a very interesting “medical” experiment which is taking place in my own city. It is a project involving patients with dementia, whose behavioural symptoms are very difficult to treat with drugs. According to the doctor who illustrated the new therapy on a local breakfast show, much better results are achieved by providing the patients with dolls that they can hug, cuddle and to which they can speak.

I want to make it clear that I’m entirely in favour of a therapy which replaces drugs with dolls, chemistry with cuddles – particularly if the patients’ health improves more by playing with a doll than by being sedated with medicines. Nevertheless, it was really heart-breaking to watch the program and to listen to the “medical” presentation of this “protocol”.

The program showed an elderly woman, seen from the back to protect her identity, who was caressing a cute-looking doll, and saying to it: “You are beautiful, you are!”. According to the doctor, by playing with dolls, the patients with dementia are brought back to long-forgotten memories; also, they feel they are not anymore mere “objects” of care, but rather that they can take care of something. Moreover, they frequently mistake the dolls for living babies, and act with the dolls tenderly and lovingly. “Thus”, the doctor continued, “the burden of caring for these patients becomes considerably lighter for our nurses.” In fact, a nurse was professionally and attentively observing the old woman while she was cuddling her doll.

As reported, this “therapy” works, is non-invasive and has no collateral effects, so I’m absolutely in favour of it; and I fully understand that it would be very dangerous to leave real babies with patients with dementia, as the behaviour of such patients can be sometimes very violent and unpredictable.

All this does not, I’m afraid, reduce the feeling of intense sadness I experienced in watching this program, and also the feeling that something was wrong.

Sadness is a very understandable feeling whenever a condition of dementia is spoken of; I think that dementia, Alzheimers and similar diseases are among the hardest to face and endure both for the patient and for his or her family and friends. When a person is deprived of her ability to think, remember, behave rationally, the situation can truly be heart-wrenching for all those directly or indirectly involved.

Still, it seems to me also very sad that those positive behaviours elicited in the dementia patients by the “interaction” with a doll cannot be stimulated by true interactions with living beings. If a doll can make old memories resurface, reduce aggressiveness, prompt tender and sweet behaviours and – this is particularly worth noting – give back to human beings the dignity of caring instead of merely being cared for, what could the true love of other real human beings do for these patients?

What if, instead of a nurse observing with professional eye the poignant play of an old, demented woman with a doll, we could have a loving net of family and neighbours? What if, reducing to virtually nil the risks, a young family could surround such a patient and leave for a while a living child in her arms, while being sure that the situation is always under control?

What if, indeed, we could start to appreciate the humanness of these patients: a humanity that is sometimes difficult to recognize, but is nevertheless there, and cannot be effaced by their condition; that cries out for love to receive and to give; that seemingly disappears when people, treated as objects, become like objects, but also immediately resurfaces when the supreme dignity of being able to love is granted to them?

Perhaps, instead of medicalising all aspects of our fragility, especially when serious diseases undermine our conscience and when we are nearing the end of our lives, we should remember that to be human is to love and be loved, and that there is no physical or psychical condition which cannot be ameliorated and lightened by surrounding the suffering people with genuine, true love.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Chiara Bertoglio

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com