I would like to have a dog, I’m glad I don’t have a dog, but I have a teddy bear
By Natasha Josefowitz, ACSW, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, Calif. — A few days ago, a friend came to visit me with her new puppy, a nine-month-old Mini Australian Shepherd. After the puppy finished exploring my apartment and drank some water, he jumped into my lap and licked my face. I was hit. All my nurturing instincts have woken up. I wanted, I needed a dog. Of course, at age 95, any dog would become an orphan in a very few years; not just for the dog. No, I don’t.
What’s interesting is that during the pandemic, animal rescue centers have seen an increase in adoption requests. People were isolated and needed something to occupy themselves with, needed company. During this time there was also an increase in plant sales, again the need to care for something alive. This propensity to care manifests itself early, from the age of four to six months in children. Children hug their stuffed animal and cry when separated. In 1995, Donald Winnicott introduced the term “transitional object” describing the intense attachment that children develop towards an object. This attachment, which is part of healthy ego development, is necessary for differentiation from others as well as an early phase of independence from parents. The child learns to calm down by getting emotional support from the stuffed animal. The toy industry recognizes this and provides doll clothing and furniture that fulfills the child’s need to care for an inanimate object, pretending it is real. Petting the soft fur, holding a stuffed animal close and cuddling can reduce stress from an unfamiliar situation or an unfamiliar caregiver. The sense of security provided by the stuffed animal can not only soothe a child, but can give them courage to face new situations.
Most people have personal possessions that are valuable and serve as extensions of the self. These precious possessions may be linked to memories of important events or have belonged to a beloved person. This is why it is often difficult for people to move from a familiar house to a smaller apartment or a retirement community. This move results in the loss of objects that are too bulky to take away or too cumbersome to keep. Some people are able to easily dispose of certain items that are no longer in use while others keep a variety of items that no longer have any real use in their life, only the memories attached to them.
Extreme attachments to objects may be a way to compensate for a lack of interpersonal attachments or may be a symptom of hoarding disorder. The diagnosis of hoarding disorder is based on the evaluation of the intensity of the emotions during the imagination of the loss of the object. Additionally, the identity of the stored object can be significant. Keeping years of old newspapers or discarded containers is different from keeping a collection of travel postcards or ceramic figurines. As people age and undergo physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, attachment to objects also changes. For some, it intensifies; for others it’s the opposite, they no longer care about anything.
Some people cling to lucky charms or something handmade that may have reflected a labor of love. Storing golf clubs or a tennis racket into old age can be a reminder of an active past life. It is also difficult for widows/widowers to throw away items carried by their deceased partner. I still have a teddy bear wearing a navy uniform that reminds me of Herman serving in the navy.
As people age, a factor in senility is the return to childhood, including the need to cling to a stuffed animal. Many caregivers have reported that giving their older patients a stuffed animal has increased calmness and reduced agitation and anxiety in these patients. There has been a positive impact by giving a robotic pet to dementia patients. The robotic pet can verbally respond to comments and questions. They bring comfort and reduce stress by avoiding loneliness. By allowing seniors to interact with these robotic pets, it also reduces depression and improves socialization and communication.
It is interesting to note that the need to feed, to take care of something, the need for companionship does not decrease with age. Even in dementia, the human propensity does not diminish. The results of this new field study provide innovative insights to help improve the mental health of our aging population.
© Natasha Josefowitz. This article originally appeared in the La Jolla Village News. You can comment at [email protected]