Children’s toy ministry gives lifelike dolls to dementia patients

May 24, 2019

One couple’s Christmas toy ministry has expanded beyond fulfilling children’s wishes and into the hands of dementia patients.

Deb Cann, aka Mrs. Claus, and husband, who prefers to go by “Santa,” run “Santa & Friends” ministry, based in Fuquay-Varina.

Traditionally, it’s raised funds and toys for disadvantaged children.

The nonprofit now spreads the generosity for seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by encouraging people to donate money to buy what they call “memory babies.”

The dolls, made by JC Toys, are the most lifelike baby dolls Cann has found anywhere, she said.

In the hands of seniors with dementia, the dolls have triggered memories and emotions once thought to be gone, she said.

Sherry Worrell saw it happen in the face of her 87-year-old mother, whom everyone calls “Miss Emma.”

“It’s just the way she lights up when she sees the baby,” Worrell said.

Her mom even named it.

“She said, ‘Wesly,’ and she spelled his name,” Worrell said. “We were like, ‘What?’”

No one in her family was named Wesly or Wesley, Worrell said, so she had no idea what spurred the name.

Senior care facilities are also familiar ground for Cann.

“My mother suffered,” Cann said. “She was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she had dementia.”

After her mother’s death, Cann and “Santa” decided to expand their toy ministry, which they established as a nonprofit in 2000.

A $35 donation buys a doll for a dementia patient.

Senior care nurse Michelle Gregory has witnessed the old memories reawakened by the life-like dolls.

“It’s a baby — it’s a baby!” Gregory said, describing the realism of the toys to the residents she seen with the dolls. “And you just see the love there.”

Those magic moments can’t happen, Cann said, without the donors with a heart for elderly residents struggling with dementia.

Donors can name a toy baby in memory or honor of someone, Cann said. The given name of the baby appears on a gift tag on the doll, along with a message.

“It has a scripture from Psalms: ‘Do not cast me away when I am old. Do not depart from me when my strength is gone,’” Cann said.

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