NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — There's a special program in Niagara County, New York, that's designed to help people living with memory loss and dementia. The Office for the Aging has weighted baby dolls and animatronic animals that help calm and center the people they're given to.
Darlene DiCarlo is the Director of the Niagara County Office for the Aging. She says over the past two years, her office has given about 200 babies or animals to seniors. The program is funded by the New York State Office for the Aging, and there is no cost to the people who get them. The seniors or their families can decide if they'd prefer to have a baby or an animal.
Some of the animals are very interactive. The cats meow and move as if they are pets, and the dogs bark and move their heads.
"It's like a real pet to them," explained DiCarlo. "And when they go into a nursing home, obviously, they can't take their pet, so it makes them feel like they're still home."
The babies are very popular with people who were parents, and often help calm them.
"The comfort of holding the baby. They talk to it, they want to cover it up they want to feed it," explained DiCarlo.
Cathy Hummel from the Office for the Aging delivers the babies or animals wherever they're needed
"Sometimes I think people think of these as stuffed animals and not real babies," she explained. "And they don't realize the impact they could possibly have on somebody with dementia."
Many of the people who get the babies will then start talking about their families and children, and a lot of them will name their babies.
The program is very popular in the Memory Care Unit at Elderwood at Wheatfield. Not only do the babies and animals offer comfort to patients, but they give them something to talk about with their loved ones, and something to focus on that they can control in a world that can seem confusing.
"I can't tell you how important it is for somebody who has dementia because they don't have filters. They don't sleep well. Their brain is always on," explained Elizabeth Laci, who is the Memory Care Coordinator. "So if they have that ability to center on something and provide comfort, it gives them that ability to shut down their brain."
Often, the patients who hold the babies or pet the animals are able to relax enough to fall asleep.
"I hope they get the comfort and the unconditional feeling of love," Hummel said. "A relationship with a baby or animal is pretty much unconditional love. So I hope that's what they get."
This story was originally reported on wkbw.com.