Watching loved ones with dementia slowly fade away is heartbreaking, but the use of doll therapy is emerging as a powerful way to put a sparkle back in patients' eyes by giving them something to care about and hold close.
Some may find the thought a family member or patient caring for an inanimate object disconcerting or demeaning.
But health professionals have found when used appropriately, the therapy can boost patients' animation and communication and also work as a non-pharmacological intervention to manage anxiety, aggression and other behavioural disorders exhibited by 60-90 per cent of dementia sufferers.
Uniting Mirinjani Weston deputy service manager Sharon Kickett said the level of psychotropic drugs used by residents had halved since the dementia care unit established a dedicated doll therapy nursery in 2015.
She said the drop in medications would save residents thousands on prescription costs, but far more important than the dollar saving was the improvement in patient wellbeing.
"There is no good antipsychotic or anti-anxiety medication, they are all potent drugs," she said. "Less use of them means less side effects and residents aren't so sedated they can't enjoy life."
She said distressed residents calling out triggered anxiety in others, so calming individuals had a positive effect on everyone.
Leisure and lifestyle co-ordinator Jo Sumner said both staff and families were astounded at the clinical benefits.
Betty Wallace was withdrawn and would hardly talk before she formed a bond with her doll James.
"When she is in there with James, she will talk about her son Jimmy, whereas at other times she won't speak or may not remember her children's names at all," she said.
But it wasn't confined to the nursery room, Mrs Sumner said. At a recent concert Betty was irritable and anxious, so staff brought her doll up in a stroller to sit beside her through the performance.
"Before we brought it up in the stroller to be next to her she wouldn't stay seated, and as soon as it was there she was calm the whole way through, every now and again reaching down to pat it on the head."
Most of the research on doll therapy is anecdotal and has not really been empirically quantified.
But despite a 2014 University of Wollongong report led by Professor Ritin Fernandez finding there was "limited evidence to support the use of doll therapy for management of agitation and aggression", it has garnered wide support in the aged care sector.
Spark of Life president Hilary Lee works closely with Dementia Care Australia and runs an organisation that developed an internationally recognised program designed to improve the social, emotional and spiritual well-being of people with dementia.
She said doll therapy was not for everyone but "should be taken seriously as one way to connect with some people who have dementia".
"It's important it's always presented as an opportunity and the person with dementia can chose to relate to it or engage with the doll in whatever way is right for them," she said.
She said focusing on the social and emotional care of people with dementia could lead to improvement and in some cases rementia - the regaining of lost cognitive and functional abilities.
"The reason it may not be used by some places is probably that perception that it is infantilising people with dementia," she said.
"It's vital the process is explained to families, so they get why we are using the dolls and that it is a therapy. Once they see it in action they understand it is doing something really positive and is just a creative catalyst for communication."