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Gifts for the Heart and Mind

Companies offer toys and gifts that provide sensory stimulation to Latino patients.

En español | Sotero Pastrano Jr. will always remember his grandmother’s reaction when she accepted his Christmas gift, a soft cloth Abuelita Rosa doll that sings lullabies in Spanish. “She started laughing and said [the doll] looked like her,” he recalls. “When she pressed the doll’s hands and heard the familiar lullabies, she laughed some more.”

See also: Alzheimer's and Latinas.

The administrative assistant from Texas saw the difference the doll made in Maria Carmen Perales’s life. “My grandmother would knit clothes for the doll; this became her new-found hobby. She loved dressing the doll,” says the 29-year-old Mexican American, whose grandmother died in 2007 at age 76.

In fact, using items often associated with children as therapeutic tools has been proven helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients or those suffering from other cognitive or emotional illnesses. It produces a calming effect, facilitates communication, and provides an emotional outlet, say professionals working in the field.

“Many patients’ families have told us that they’ve seen a change in their family member since we’ve been using these tools. They are able to sleep better and don’t have as much frustration,” says Nancy Dezan, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Family Day Center in Virginia.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes difficult for families to see a formerly vibrant adult relative using what look like toys. What’s important, experts say, is to remember that in treating Alzheimer’s—a disease that robs people of their memories and identities and has no cure—the emphasis is on slowing the progression of the disease and improving the patient’s quality of life.

“Any tools that enhance the quality of life for the aging need to be embraced and available to the people who need them,” says Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging.

For Latino patients, bilingual or Spanish-language products like Abuelita Rosa may prove especially effective. The doll is part of the Baby Abuelita collection that features a family of stuffed dolls with grandparents Abuelita Rosa and Abuelito Pancho, and Baby Andrea, Baby Tita, and Baby Mimi. When you press their palms, they sing traditional Spanish-language lullabies and nursery rhymes such as Arroz con leche, Duérmete mi niña, and Los pollitos dicen.

Carol Fenster and Hilda Argilagos-Jimenez of Florida, founders of Baby Abuelita Productions, thought it was important to preserve culture through toys for children. “We came up with grandparents [dolls] because we wanted to portray the image of love and care that older generations give to children,” says Fenster.

Next: Connecting through culture.>>

But the dolls took on a new role when they proved to be just as popular with older family members. “We are approached by people who have given these toys to their parents or grandparents and are amazed by the emotional response it evokes in their family members,” adds Fenster.

In addition to dolls or stuffed animals, board games that require manipulating pieces and following directions are also especially useful in stimulating the mind and engaging the patient socially. For Hispanic patients, consider a game like Bilingual Bingo; the board looks like the traditional game but with pictures of food, animals, clothing, and colors. The bingo reader calls out the name of the object in Spanish, and players place their chips on the picture of the corresponding item. 

While memories and cognitive capacity may have dimmed, someone struggling with Alzheimer’s will still respond to sensory experiences such as stroking or handling textured surfaces, listening to their favorite music, or gazing at picture books with their bright, easy-to-understand illustrations, experts say,

A book such as El alfabeto cubano, a book about two young siblings who are learning their ABCs from their Cuban grandparents, could fit the bill and is full of the sort of cultural information that might stimulate memories in Hispanic patients with Alzheimer’s.

In the book, the grandparents teach the letters of the alphabet by describing a place, dish, or celebration from Cuba that corresponds to each letter. “It covers many different aspects of life in Cuba: one of our favorite songs—“Guantanamera”—yuca (cassava), Celia Cruz, dominos,” says the book’s author Dr. Eduardo A. Otero, a Florida physician who works with newborns.

“I wanted to write a book that would inspire older generations to speak to their children and grandchildren about Cuba to preserve our heritage,” Otero says. El alfabeto cubano could also spark memories of their heritage in Cuban American Alzheimer’s patients.

And that connection to their culture might just be the trick to cutting through the fog that clouds the minds of those with dementia. “I will never forget how my grandmother’s face brightened up when she saw her doll,” says Pastrano. “It was a priceless moment for me and my family.”

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