How These Toddlers Taught A Woman Living With Dementia To Speak For The First Time In Years


MO nervously scurries around a daycare centre in Colwyn Bay, Wales, clutching her baby doll close to her frail body.

But she’s not a young child – she’s an 82-year-old woman with devastating Alzheimer’s disease.

BBC Wales Mo deals with her dementia by comforting a baby doll

Mo was diagnosed in 2012 and since then, her condition has left her highly agitated and stopped her interacting with the other patients at the specialist dementia centre.

She clings to the doll for comfort – but would she benefit more from interaction with real children?

Previous scientific studies on people living with dementia have shown that regular time with kids helps with loneliness and appears to mitigate symptoms.

This is the basis for a BBC Wales TV experiment, The Toddlers Who Took On Dementia, led by three psychologists from Bangor University.

Over a three-day period, toddlers from a local nursery visit those at the daycare centre to see if they can bring out their former personalities and restore some memory loss.

BBC Wales Previous studies have shown spending time with children can benefit those with dementia

Coping with the condition

The elderly people at the centre have differing ways of living with their devastating illness.

While Mo clings to her baby for comfort, 81-year-old Jean always cries to herself after she finishes her lunch.

And former chauffeur David relies on his catchphrases “bingo” and “all-go” when he’s feeling confused.

When asked what dementia feels like, 76-year-old Maureen is frank. It’s “horrible,” she admits.

BBC Wales David (pictured in his younger years) was a chauffeur before dementia took hold

As the tots walk in on their first day, the pensioners look immediately delighted – but there’s some bafflement on the children’s part when David starts talking to them about his beloved West Ham FC.

As the children run around blowing bubbles, the dementia patients begin to sing the West Ham anthem I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.

Music is believed to be an amazing prompt for people with the syndrome, as it can trigger emotional memories of the past.

The group sing and dance together, with music being an amazing prompt for people living with dementia

Finding her voice

But most suprisingly, Mo – who usually hides away in another room – comes in to the living room to join in with the group.

Mo continues staying in the main room throughout the second day, sitting with the children who are playing with baby toys.

And incredibly, when one of them asks if she wants to look after their doll, Mo tries to speak for the first time in years to ask when she is coming back.

BBC Wales For the first time in two years, Mo discards her doll to give somebody her full attention

Mo used to be a keen baker, and sits with one of the tots, Leo, making rice krispie cakes.

For the first time in two years her baby doll has been put to the side – and she gives Leo her full attention, even raising some laughs from him when she sneaks a cheeky spoonful from the bowl.

There’s also a surprise in store for former chauffeur David.

Memory lane

Like David, Leo, who has struggles of his own living with autism spectrum disorder, loves cars – so the researchers organise a drive for the pair in a flash vintage Austin Westminster, just like David used to operate.

This is a ‘reminiscence journey’ for the 81-year-old, who is reminded of his former life.

Car mad tot Leo pretends to take David for a spin in the same vehicle the former chauffeur once drove

After the drive, he tells Leo about what driving the car used to be like on rainy days.

It’s clear the psychologists are happy with the results.

The kids have interacted with an older generation who they wouldn’t ordinarily associate with and those living with dementia have revealed characteristics from their earlier days.

What is dementia?

 There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. It has recently overtaken heart disease to become the leading cause of death for both women and men across the UK. It is a syndrome associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning, and can affect memory, thinking skills and other mental abilities. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, delerium, hallucinations, mood swings, problems swallowing, speaking and eating, and difficulty moving without assistance.

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