Almost 15 years ago, Sandy Cambron noticed her mother-in-law, Pearl Walker, had become withdrawn and quiet after she moved into a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients in Shepherdsville, Ky.
“We tried everything — photo albums, old stories — but nothing worked,” she said. “It was really hard on everyone to see how she had changed.”
Then one day, while Cambron was in a toy store, she had an idea: Why not give Pearl a baby doll so she could feel like she was caring for something again? While she was at it, why not give one to all the other care center residents?
The plan worked. As soon as Cambron gave Pearl the doll, wrapped in a soft pink blanket, her mother-in-law's face lit up.
"She started talking again and she never went anywhere without that baby,” said Cambron. “She took 'baby' to the dining room with her and slept with her in her arms every night. When she passed away a year later, we even buried her with that well-loved baby doll."
In the following decade, Cambron and her husband, Wayne Cambron, continued to buy dozens of dolls in Pearl’s memory, dressing them in cute footie pajamas and handing them out to residents of care centers near their home in Shepherdsville every Christmas, instead of giving each other gifts.
Now Pearl’s Memory Babies is a nonprofit group that has donated more than 300 dolls to seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia at nursing homes throughout western Kentucky and southern Indiana since February 2018.
The Cambrons started the charity with help from Shannon Gray Blair, a co-worker at the optometry store and clinic where Sandy Cambron once worked.
"When Sandy offered to give a doll to my mom, who had Alzheimer's, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of,” said Blair, 47.
She knew it again last year after she posted Valentine’s Day photos on Facebook of seniors reacting to a batch of dolls she and Cambron delivered to a local nursing home. The post went viral overnight with more than 210,000 shares.
"Just like that, we had a new hobby,” said Cambron, 71, whose home has been overtaken with baby dolls, infant clothing, fleece blankets and diapers, along with stuffed “therapy” animals for seniors who once owned pets and who might prefer to have a dog or cat.
With almost $15,000 donated to the cause through GoFundMe, Cambron, who is now retired, spends a lot of time shopping for dolls, onesies and baby caps.
“I had no idea that it would take off like this. It’s a simple idea, but it works,” she said. “Some people cry when you hand them their baby. Even though we don’t know exactly what they’re thinking, you can tell that the doll has helped bring back some kind of nice memory.”
When Alzheimer’s patients hold their dolls close, they receive therapy and comfort in a way that cannot be measured, said Elise Hinchman of Sayre Christian Village, a nonprofit retirement community in Lexington, Ky.
“It’s overwhelming to see how they naturally fall into a rhythm of swaying, rocking and cooing,” said Hinchman, the marketing and development director at Sayre Christian Village. “The way they light up is like taking a step back in time. You can imagine them holding their own children.”
While dementia takes away memories, it does not rob people of their ability to love, she said.
“They are still ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ inside,” Hinchman said. “Some residents feel a real purpose in taking care of their babies because it is ‘important’ work. That nurturing instinct is so innate, and the doll babies bring back fond memories of long ago.”
Workers’ eyes filled with happy tears at the retirement community on June 19, when Cambron and Blair wheeled in several bright red wagons loaded with 41 dolls and stuffed animals.
"Delivery day was something I’ll never forget,” said Karen Venis, executive director at Sayre Christian Village, adding that 60 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line.
"After selecting the perfect baby for the resident, Sandy would quietly lean down and present each doll baby,” said Venis. “Those who witnessed it would swear the doll became real before our eyes."
Blair said she notes the transformation that happens every time she delivers a doll.
She recalled one woman who received her baby doll while her daughter was visiting.
“She grabbed her new baby, looked at the doll and then her daughter and said, ‘This thing is cuter than my own,’ " Blair recalled. “Once a mom, always a mom. We all laughed at that.”
Helping Cambron with Pearl's Memory Babies has made the grief from losing her mother to Alzheimer's last year more bearable, said Blair.
“We deliver these babies, then we cry,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s therapeutic.”