A Four Oaks story of love is inspiring others across the country.
Last year, Dale O’Neill’s mom lost her battle with Alzheimer’s, a disease the lifelong Four Oaks resident fought for eight years. O’Neill then penned a short story about using doll therapy to help her mom, Gladys Adams. The story is included in the recently released “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.”
Adams found comfort in the doll, named Herbert, treating him like her own child. After a lifetime of taking care of others, Adams needed an outlet to express that love, and Herbert was the solution, O’Neill said.
Her last child
Doctors diagnosed Adams with Alzheimer’s a few weeks after her husband died. The disease chiseled away Adams’ personality and sense of self until it finally took away her ability to talk. She died last year at age 88.
“We watched her skills, her abilities, her memory decline over the course of eight years,” O’Neill said. “We reversed roles. The things that a parent would typically do for a child, her children then began to do for her.”
Adams loved to garden and adored her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She found comfort in her church, Beulah Hill Christian, and enjoyed taking care of her family. But all of that faded away in the face of Alzheimer’s.
“It is the cruelest disease I have ever witnessed or experienced because it takes so much from its victims over such an extended period of time,” O’Neill said.
During the decline, O’Neill researched ways to connect with her mom. “I read about doll therapy and thought I would try it because she had always been such a loving person,” O’Neill said. “And for most of her life, she had been a caregiver for either children or grandchildren, and so I thought maybe she might connect with that.”
O’Neill brought her mom the doll and she immediately connected. She would keep her eyes on Herbert and become anxious if people didn’t treat him as real. She expected him to be fed and held like any other child.
O’Neill said the therapy’s success brought mixed emotions. “Obviously, when you see a parent holding a doll and believing that doll is real, it’s sad for you,” she said. “But at the same time, to see that she could enjoy it, she could love it, she could feel a sense of comfort with it, then that was very special.”
When her mom passed away, O’Neill wrote a short piece about Herbert and the comfort he gave Adams. In the piece, O’Neill describes Herbert as her mom’s last child, who came into her life at age 87. Herbert followed O’Neill’s mom to places she couldn’t, including to an MRI and, finally, to the funeral home.
O’Neill first got involved with the Alzheimer’s Association in 2011. When the association partnered with “Chicken Soup for the Soul” to publish a book dedicated to those affected by Alzheimer’s, O’Neill submitted her story. Out of thousands of submissions, O’Neill’s story made the book with 100 others.
“The most important part of this entire experience for me is the opportunity that it will get the word out about this disease and that there’s a possibility that someone reading this story might try doll therapy, and it might bring the joy to someone else that it did to my mother,” O’Neill said.
Bobby Adams is O’Neill’s sister. When she first suggested the doll, Bobby Adams wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. “I didn’t know we were at that stage yet,” he said. But after seeing his mom with Herbert, Bobby Adams knew they had made the right choice
He hopes his sister’s story will show people that they should try doll therapy. “When you see how much pleasure that she gets, and when they read the story about Herbert, maybe they wouldn’t feel bad about doing the same thing,” he said.
O’Neill started volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association for two reasons: to honor her mother and to make sure her granddaughter doesn’t have to watch a family member go through the same ordeal. “It feels wonderful to be able to fight back against this disease in some capacity,” she said.
Adams’ family still has Herbert. During the funeral and visitation, Herbert wore a purple ribbon, the Alzheimer’s color. He now belongs to O’Neill’s 3-year-old granddaugther, Addyson, who takes him to tea parties. O’Neill also brings Herbert to Alzheimer’s awareness sessions.
O’Neill wants others to get involved in the fight by joining the next Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which will take place Oct. 4 at the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center. For more information about the walk, visit alz.org and find Smithfield, or call O’Neill at 919-706-6122.