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Lifelike dolls ease anxiety in nursing homes

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    Rachel Smith is painting the minute details that give the dolls their realistic look.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Olivia Presti, activity director at Welcome Nursing Home, cleans up the baby with baby soap.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Rachel Smith is painting in the minute details that give the dolls their realistic look.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Rachel Smith is painting on one of the multiple base layers to simulate skin coloring on the vinyl doll parts.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    One of the custom painted dolls made by Rachel Smith.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Kenyon Gornall, 92, holds the therapy baby at Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin. The baby is one of the dolls that is used to help the residents make connections and is useful for getting them to reconnect with old memories.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Clara, 87, a resident at Welcome Nursing Home sleeps next to a baby that was made specifically for her by Rachel Smith. Smith bonded with the doll and will not let it out of her sight.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    One of the custom painted dolls made by Rachel Smith.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Kenyon Gornall, 92, holds the therapy baby at Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin. The baby is one of the dolls that is used to help the residents make connections and is useful for getting them to reconnect with old memories.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

  • doll-before-and-after-jpg

    Rachel Smith of LaGrange shows a vinyl doll head before painting and a finshed doll. Both heads are from the same mold.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Doll parts await further detailing.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Rachel Smith of LaGrange with some of the babies she has made.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    Rachel Smith of LaGrange hand painted this doll to appear lifelike.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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Sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a gray sweater and pants, Kenyon Gornall’s face lit up the moment Olivia Presti walked into his room at The Welcome Nursing Home.

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Kenyon Gornall, 92, holds the therapy baby at Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin. The baby is one of the dolls that is used to help the residents make connections and is useful for getting them to reconnect with old memories.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

In her arms, wrapped in a black and white blanket, was a baby girl.

“Oh, what a beautiful baby,” Gornall said.

Presti then asked Gornall, 92, if he wanted to hold the baby.

“Oh yes … what’s her name?” he asked looking at the baby cradled in Presti’s arms.

Presti told him her name was Ella.

Some days Gornall, once president and publisher of the Lorain Morning Journal, remembers events from decades ago — like raising four children. Other days, it’s a blur.

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Kenyon Gornall, 92, holds the therapy baby at Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin. The baby is one of the dolls that is used to help the residents make connections and is useful for getting them to reconnect with old memories.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

As Gornall talked to the baby, telling her how “precious” and “beautiful” she was, memories of his own children were brought to light.

“I had four babies,” Gornall said. “Three girls and one boy.”

But, the baby isn’t real. It’s a Bunny Bundle Reborn — a lifelike creation made by Wellington resident Rachel Smith.

Helping nursing home residents

“We look for new ways to help them (get through) agitation, anxiety and negative behaviors,” said Heidi Freas, an occupational therapist and third generation owner of The Welcome Nursing Home. “And the babies are something that they can relate to because it takes them back to mostly a positive time in their life.”

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Rachel Smith of LaGrange with some of the babies she has made.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

Therapy dolls for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients are one of the newest forms of treatment in the medical field. According to Central Ohio Alzheimer’s Association Sunday Adult Day Care program, centers started testing the dolls in April 2004 and saw immediate, positive results.

The Welcome Nursing Home was introduced to Bunny Bundles Reborns in the summer. Smith arrived at the facility with two of her reborns, explaining to Presti and Freas the potential benefit of the therapy babies.

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Olivia Presti, activity director at Welcome Nursing Home, cleans up the baby with baby soap.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

“I didn’t recognize at first that they weren’t real and everyone came over to the front doors to see them,” Presti said. “We had heard about doll therapy and we have baby dolls, but nothing this realistic. Rachel asked us to try the babies, and we bought the two dolls on the spot.”

The two babies now stay in the activity room and are used whenever there is a need.

“We use them to distract residents when they are getting shots, or tube feedings or wound cleaning,” Freas said.

Not all patients necessarily need pharmaceutical intervention to help alleviate symptoms accompanied with dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. For some residents, just holding a therapy baby settles them when otherwise they may be upset.

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Clara, 87, a resident at Welcome Nursing Home sleeps next to a baby that was made specifically for her by Rachel Smith. Smith bonded with the doll and will not let it out of her sight.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

“We have one resident, Clara … and we bought her a baby. She missed her own babies and would become upset when asking for them,” Presti said. “It was especially made for Clara by Rachel. And, it resembles one of her children. She takes care of the baby every day. It gives her purpose in life.”

And if Smith, who can custom-design the dolls based on real-life facial features, can help one person overcome adversity in their life, she will bend over backward to make it happen.

“I’m a helper,” she said from her home in Wellington. “People are hurting, and I want to make them happy.”

Smith didn’t realize there was a need for therapy dolls until about three years ago.

And, it wasn’t until February 2016 that she began showcasing her reborn babies at craft shows and nursing homes around Lorain County. Since February, Smith has sold 40 dolls and donated eight.

“I donate every 10th one to a nursing home for patients,” she said.

Keystone Pointe Health and Rehabilitation in LaGrange has two; and Lorain County Joint Vocational School has purchased four for use in the early childhood develop studies.

How reborns are created

Smith, who homeschools her two daughters, wakes at 5:30 a.m. every day and works on the dolls until the school day starts at 10 a.m. It takes about one week to make a Bunny Bundle from start to finish.

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Rachel Smith is painting on one of the multiple base layers to simulate skin coloring on the vinyl doll parts.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

And the finished product has made heads turn.

“The detail on these dolls is complete — down to the veins in the head, arms and legs,” Smith said. “The head and limbs are weighted down with tiny glass beads to give the doll a realistic ‘floppy’ baby feel. The hair is either painted or I root mohair, one strand at a time.”

The dolls are then dressed in real baby clothes and wear real diapers.

“The final product is amazingly lifelike to look at and hold,” she said.

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Rachel Smith is painting the minute details that give the dolls their realistic look.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

A self-taught artist, Smith purchases doll kits and then transforms them into real-life babies.

“A reborn doll is a vinyl doll or silicone kit, or a standard store-bought doll whose paint has been stripped off, then painted to look like a real baby,” Smith said.

The limbs and head, made of vinyl, are air-brushed using acrylic paint to resemble skin. Veins are then painted onto the body using a fine brush. To give the baby its final distinction of reality, Smith fills each cloth body with poly pellets and fiberfill.

The birth of reborn babies

The birth of reborn babies began with the death of Smith’s mom three years ago.

When Dolores Cadle died, she left behind a doll collection and a story.

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One of the custom painted dolls made by Rachel Smith.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

“She bought dolls all the time off (Home Shopping Network), and it used to drive me crazy. She had them all over the place and I just didn’t get it,” Smith said. “But she told me a story about when she was a kid. They didn’t have a lot of money, and she had a lot of siblings. She had a friend down the road that got a Kewpie doll. She went over to her house and she hid in the closet with it all day.”

As the story goes, everyone in town searched for Dolores believing she was missing.

“She knew this, but she hid because she wanted to hold that doll so bad but they didn’t have money for that,” Smith said. “So when they found her she was in really big trouble. But she said ‘I would have done it again.’ I think that’s why she was like that. Because she wanted one so bad and as an adult she said well I couldn’t have one then so I will have all I want now. That kind of drives me to create them now.”

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Rachel Smith of LaGrange shows a vinyl doll head before painting and a finshed doll. Both heads are from the same mold.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

Soon after her mom died, Smith said her first doll-making experience came about when her oldest daughter, Samara, now 7, wanted an Ashton Drake doll, a lifelike collectable that she had to have.

“I was so disappointed with it and then I saw the price of the doll,” Smith said, noting the doll was valued at $115. “I just remember thinking, ‘I can do this!’”

Smith then took apart the Ashton Drake doll piece-by-piece and added more “lifelike features” — a softer body; detailed facial features; and she air-brushed the limbs to make them appear like flesh.

That’s when it clicked, she said.

“I was only going to make a couple babies, but people kept wanting them. The babies have helped me take the attention off of myself,” Smith said. “My sadness is gone, and it helps me forget about things that bother me. The more real I can make it, the better.”

Bringing happiness

By a quick glance, the reborn babies do look real.

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Rachel Smith of LaGrange with some of the babies she has made.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE Enlarge

Smith never realized how opinionated people could be until she took the babies out in public.

“I get yelled at all the time,” she said laughing. “People tell me I am holding the baby wrong. They tell me I didn’t dress it properly for the weather. I try to tell them it’s not real, but they don’t believe me.”

Now, Smith just lets the negative comments roll off her shoulders.

“You never know what you’ll end up doing in life or where it will take you,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, I thought it was weird and creepy the first time I saw one. The more I looked though, the more it intrigued me. It never ceases to amaze me at the reaction to this art. The good and the bad. It’s not who I am, but just what I do, and if I can bring some joy to someone who is broken, then I don’t care what anybody thinks.”

Contact Melissa Linebrink at 329-7243 or mlinebrink@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @MLinebrinkCT.



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