American Girl Doll and Dementia

Who said you can’t bring your fullest self into the care partner relationship? What’s stopping you?

My obsession with history and my curiosity about others was ingrained into my DNA and part of my interests long before I picked up my first American Girl Doll. For many of us, the toys we play with and the things we watch form us and our interests from an early age. For me, it was not the toys or movies so much as it was the books my mom purchased for me and the stories she read out loud.

When I was in 1st grade, Mom purchased for me all of the Meet Samatha books from the American Girl Collection, and my obsession with historical fiction began. I went on to read all the books that went along with the first five dolls, Felicity, Kirstin, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. I devoured these books, and up until I went off to college, they continued to hold pride of place on my bookshelf, a constant small reminder of where it all began. American Girl is not the same today as it was back in the 1990s, but Pleasant Rowland’s creation formed me as a young girl as much as the work and imagination of Francis Hodgson Burnett, Kay Thompson, and many, MANY others!

My love of history, people, and historical fiction grew as I got older and evolved with me. But it all started with American Girl. Who knew that a book series with corresponding dolls could hold so much for such a small girl. When I started collecting the dolls, accessories, and books, American Girl was not the status symbol it has become today. One would pick a doll based on the story they wanted to live in, not as a way to compete with another girl at school. Some classmates only had the books, and some classmates had all five dolls. We shared with each other, and we talked about the books and the places we would go in our imagination as we entered the various time periods. Great adventures and quiet moments were sparked by each book and the play we entered into with our dolls. Living in Wisconsin meant our moms could go down to Middleton to the warehouse sale where they would pick up accessories, patterns, and fabric to expand our collection at a lower cost than that of the catalog price. Roxanne’s Doll shop downtown allowed us to enter even more worlds as we uncovered different time periods not addressed by Pleasant Company. The world of American Girl knew no limits and made up most of my childhood.

Addy and Samantha. Along with an AG Today doll, allowed me to travel time and space during most of my childhood.

How does this relate to dementia you ask? Well, everything! You see, it was this pivotal element of my childhood that formed who I am today. That formation has informed how I become relational with clients, and over the years, AG has been a direct point of connection. It was in sharing my love of historical fiction and how I came to love this type of literature that the subject of the dolls came up. When it came up in conversation, it became our emotional tie to each other. This lead to Wednesday conversations and programs designed specifically to address what made these individuals feel fully alive. My programs such as A Deeper Look, Women Through History and Fashion, A Page a Day Book Club, and many others including, the Dementia Letters Project, find their roots in the conversations we had about historical fiction and American Girl Doll.

It was in sharing of my love of American Girl Doll that we had conversations about the toys and books that formed us as children, and went on to form their children and grandchildren. One person even told me how they spent so much money on Barbies in one year for their granddaughter that they could have purchased an American Girl and all of her outfits. She thought American Girl would have been the better investment. We agreed with each other, that it is about having a few great toys instead of an entire house filled with the latest and greatest. I could write for hours about the conversations that this topic alone started, but I will stop here before this story twists out of focus.

What part of your life could you share with someone you are working with right now? How can you share your fullest self?

If I did not share my fullest self, I might have never come to know the fullest version of the clients I work with, and we would be stuck in the cycle of programming and 2-D relationships we so often see in care. Forget about dementia for a moment, and engage with others. Now obviously, there are times when you don’t (and even shouldn’t) share elements of yourself and your life. But focus on what you can share. Yes, this is a professional environment we work in, but for our clients and residents, it is a personal one. It doesn’t require us to go through your life’s history, sharing every element of your life to be successful. That is not necessarily your fullest self. Your fullest self is to be present, to engage in conversation, to share with them what you love and who you are when it naturally comes up, and to think of the relationship as two human beings, instead of the person with dementia and professional care partner.

Next time you are at the crossroads of, to share or not to share, consider sharing a bit of your life with those who sit before you. It could change your entire world for the better!

Published by Kathryne Fassbender

Creative Gerontologist, Speaker, Catholic Innovator. I am also the granddaughter of someone who lived with Vascular Dementia.

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