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Paul Craig, 94, holds Lane, a life-like doll, as he talks with his daughter, Mary Craig Coleman, at the Lantern Alzheimer's Center in Hixson, a division of Morning Pointe Senior Living. Coleman says the center's cuddling program has given her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009, a purpose each day.

Paul Craig looks lovingly at the newborn he's cuddling tightly against his chest.

Rocking back and forth, he painstakingly fiddles with the corners of a soft fleece blanket, making sure the baby is adequately swaddled. He leans over and affectionately whispers in the baby's ear, obviously enjoying the bonding.

What's not obvious, at first, is that the "baby" is actually a handmade, life-like doll. It's part of a "cuddle program" for patients at the Lantern Alzheimer's Center in Hixson, a division of Morning Pointe Senior Living.

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Paul Craig's daughter, Mary Craig Coleman, says she believes her father sees the doll, Lane, as his biological child or grandchild.

Craig, 94, a retired research chemist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009, has always been a hugger, says his daughter, Mary Craig Coleman, of Chattanooga. Before Alzheimer's took a toll on his memory, he loved holding and cuddling his now 4-year-old twin great-grandchildren. And though he still recognizes Coleman as someone he knows, he must be reminded that she is his daughter. She believes he sees the doll as his biological child or grandchild.

The cuddle program is giving her father "purpose," she says, noting that he was always busy mentally and physically in his work and at home. He has numerous patents -- including a medicine for cancer used to treat his late wife -- and he was an avid painter and crossword puzzle enthusiast. In the last couple years, though, Alzheimer's has robbed him of those pleasures.

"I am thrilled (with cuddle therapy). It gives him something to do and makes him feel needed. He's always loved his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and he's connecting with the doll as though it's real. It's good for him," Coleman says.

The program at Lantern is not just a way to keep its residents calm and involved; research shows that cuddling is beneficial across the board.

"Hugging and cuddling are important ways to nourish ourselves on a deep level," says Hillary Libby, a Chattanooga-based holistic health coach and yoga instructor. "Both physiologically with the boost of oxytocin and serotonin (love and happiness chemicals) and energetically and/or spiritually by reinforcing our feeling of connection with other people and/or creatures.

"I say creatures, too, because there is research showing similar biological markers for people who have (and likely cuddle) pets.

"I think the need for touch is inherent in humans from the time we are born and we experience touch as a form of love from our parents. And all this is free and available to any of us, so even better," she says. "I think connection through hugging and cuddling is important for all humans of all ages. That feeling of love and connection through touch is with us from the day we are born until the day we die."

Fran Walfish, a California-based psychotherapist, says "cuddling is healthy for people because of the obvious factor of emotional attachment."

"Cuddling can also release endorphins, which is the chemical released after a good workout or when you eat chocolate which contributes to that great feeling," Walfish says on her website, drfranwalfish.com.

Travis Sigley, founder of Cuddle Therapy in San Francisco, says hugs can be beneficial whether they're from a family member, a friend or a stranger.

"A hug can do a world of difference if you're just feeling terrible. Giving a big hug or laying down and cuddling with someone for a while will just totally change how you feel," he says.

Frequent cuddling is certainly making a difference to Craig and other Alzheimer's patients at Lantern and 16 other Morning Pointe facilities. The "babies" have become a huge hit with residents.

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Dolls Gracie and Lane share a bassinet at the Lantern Alzheimer's Center in Hixson. Residents can visit them each day.

"[The residents] connect to them and to that time in their lives when they engaged in hugs," says Amy Clarke, Morning Pointe's corporate communications director. "The dolls are in a nursery and many of the residents visit them every day. It makes them happy and feel connected. The dolls trigger memories and the feelings are very strong. It's an impactful program."

The Lantern facility has two of the dolls, and residents are free to cuddle with them whenever they want. On some days, several residents will cuddle the dolls, but most every day, Craig is sitting in a rocker cuddling "his" doll. He chooses the same doll, named Lane, each time.

The rocking chairs are located in a spacious great room just off the dining area. It's a quiet spot where "visitors" whisper so they won't disturb the residents cuddling the dolls.

On this particular day, as Craig rocks and cuddles Lane, resident Ruth Young sits in a rocker next to him while cuddling the other doll. Though Young is typically very animated with the doll -- she often sings to it -- on this day she simple cuddles it quietly. A Lantern staff member explains that Young is not having a good day and she needs the comfort of cuddling.

"It's thrilling to see what cuddling these dolls does for the residents of Lantern," says Linda Noll, executive director of Lantern Alzheimer's Center in Hixson. "They develop an attachment to the dolls and the connection with them replenishes their desire to care for someone. I think it takes some of them back to their time as a parent when their children were little. Everyone needs to feel needed and loved, and caring for these dolls gives that back to them, even though they don't realize that the dolls aren't real babies. They love them, and, to them, the dolls are real. It makes them happy.

"It shows us firsthand the power of cuddling," she says.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at 423-757-6396 or khill@timesfreepress.com.

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