Visiting restrictions in care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused residents, including those with dementia, to suffer from loneliness, depressive symptoms, agitation, aggression, and reduced mental function.

Yet even before the pandemic began, researchers from Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales were looking for ways to improve the quality of life for those with advanced dementia. They settled on the simple act of being cuddled through a hug. The results are amazing.

The research team found that people with advanced dementia can have their quality of life improved dramatically by being hugged. Best of all, the hug doesn’t have to come from another person. It can come from a special doll.

Compassionate Design 

The approach to create the doll is called Compassionate Design. It places loving-kindness for the person and their special needs at the heart of the design process. It does this by aiming to retain a person’s sense of self; to maintain their dignity; and to encourage moments of high-quality connection with others.

Working with over 70 organizations and consulting with over 170 participants, including care-givers, health professionals and technologists, the Cardiff researchers created a soft cushion-like doll called HUG.

It weighs about the same as a small child and has heavy arms that can be wrapped around the shoulders to provide the sensation of both giving, and being given, a hug.

The body cavity contains electronics that simulate a beating heart, and speakers through which a playlist of favorite music and sounds can be played.

HUG was initially designed for a specific patient called Thelma.

“She’s Like a Different Lady Now” 

Thelma had advanced dementia and was on end-of-life care. She could no longer communicate verbally, was bedbound, unable to socialize, barely opened her eyes, had stiff, twisted hands, and constantly fell when out of bed.

Three months after being given HUG, a dramatic improvement in her general health and quality of life was observed.

Her appetite returned, she opened her eyes and started speaking again. The condition of her hands improved, and even though she now spent most of the day out of bed, she had no further falls.

One of her care-givers explained, saying, “She’s come alive so much. She’s like a different lady now…. it’s like a miracle in a way.” Thelma went on to live another nine months with a dramatically improved quality of life.

87 Percent Increase in Well-Being 

This success led to four years of testing in hospitals and care homes followed by a formal trial in 19 patients.

Six months into the trial the benefits were clear to see. There was an 87 percent increase in well-being, an improved quality of life, and the patients demonstrated better cognitive and functional ability. They were also less anxious and agitated, and their social interaction was enhanced.

Professor Cathy Treadaway, who led the team, said, “We live in a very touch-deprived society at the moment, and a lot of people are suffering with ‘touch poverty’ particularly with COVID.

“Even before the pandemic, people with dementia were often the most marginalized in our communities with many not receiving any visitors at all.

“Although HUG isn’t meant to replace people, having an alternative that gives the sensation of that connection is going to be comforting.”

Her comments are backed up by others. The daughter of another patient said, “Wherever mum goes, HUG will go. There is a strong attachment and emotional bond.”

A care home worker also witnesses the benefits, saying, “Using the HUG has been an effective way of helping our residents feel secure and loved. It has been amazing to see the smiles that a HUG can bring.”

Currently, HUG is only shipped within the United Kingdom, but the doll is expected to be sold worldwide in the near future.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC8196532/
  2. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/health/hugging-device-being-used-help-19063612 
  3. https://www.cardiffmet.ac.uk/about/who-we-are/Pages/hug.aspx 
  4. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/research/our-research/hug-by-laugh 

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