Playing with dolls, at 75

“Don’t sit on the children!” my mother-in-law yelled, in some distress.

My husband leaped up from the sofa. He hadn’t noticed that the cushions were propped up pertly, with doilies lovingly wrapped around them as if to keep them warm.

It was the first real sign we had that dementia had taken hold.

After that, each time we’d visit, I’d sit and talk with her – holding a conversation like any two young mothers would.

“It’s so good for the children to play outside,” she’d say indulgently, nodding out the window to the parking lot. “They’re making so much noise — but they’re having fun.”

Of course, there were no children outside. And she was 75 years old. Still, each time we came to the house, her brood seemed to have multiplied. The pillows would have cardigans buttoned up around them. We’d be more and more careful where we sat – moving the cushions, putting our arms around them so we could sit down and talk with her.

It was surreal, having these conversations, but we figured, if it worked …

Thankfully, doctors and care workers were brought in and she got the care she needed.

We later learned that many older people with dementia – both men and women – gain some benefit with actually playing with dolls. It gave us some comfort to know that her “wee children” were helping her.

Here’s an article about that. It appeared in a journal put out by the Oxford University Press, but it’s easy to read.

Dementia and dolls

Today (i.e. October 10) is World Mental Health day according to the World Health Organization – and examples of mental illness abound around us, with my mother-in-law being but one example.

Mental illness is not a pretty thing. We see it in depression in our families and workplaces. We see it on the streets. We see it with our friends. It can be terribly scary.

Sharing this story is my way of trying to raise some awareness. Maybe if we all shared our stories, it wouldn’t be such a scary thing.

The British comedian Stephen Fry came out about his bipolar disorder a number of years ago. Even when he’s suffering, he’s funny, intelligent and brutally honest.

Here’s a link to his website/forum where he talks about mental illness:

Stephen Fry on mental illness

From my point of view, perhaps the best thing that could come from this day is that we treat people with mental illness more kindly. It’s not an easy cross to bear.

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