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Episode 176 Tonja Moon

Episode 176

Join Rayna Neises as she learns about the mission of The Grand Baby Project with Tonja Moon, founder. In this touching episode, Tonja unravels her personal narrative of caring for her dementia-stricken grandmother, revealing the unexpected calming power of lifelike baby dolls and they offer joy and a sense of purpose to those battling with memory loss. As we traverse Tonja’s journey, we uncover the triumphs, the struggles, and the surprising response of men with dementia to this therapy.

But that’s not all. As we delve deeper, the conversation sheds light on the pivotal role of caregivers, the unsung heroes within the Alzheimer’s and dementia community. Tonja and Rayna, drawing from their personal experiences, discuss creative hobbies and ways to support loved ones, reminding us of the importance of cherishing small moments. Learn how you can contribute to the Grand Baby Project and make a difference in the lives of dementia patients and their caregivers. So, sit back, grab a cup of your favorite brew, and prepare for a heartfelt journey into the world of caregiving and the heartwarming work of the Grand Baby Project.

The Grand Baby Project
Supporting Caregivers Through Take Heart Community of Christian Caregivers
Support The Grand Baby Project through donations of many kinds

This Episode is brought to you by:


Tonja Moon

Tonja Moon

Founder of The Grand Baby Project

Tonja Moon is a mother, business owner, geriatric advocate, healthcare marketing strategist and certified Dementia Care Specialist. With over 15 years of leadership experience in the hospice and geriatric mental health care arenas, her background in Senior Healthcare is broad and dynamic.

“Throughout my career I have always had a special affinity for Dementia patients. I helped care for my Grandmother who suffered with the disease. I experienced firsthand the challenges and emotional toll it takes as a caregiver.

I started The Grand Baby Project in honor of my Grandmother, Ruby Sims. She loved her 5 kids but there was no doubt she loved her Grandkids the most! During her battle with Dementia she was often confused, lonely and angry. In the end baby dolls and stuffed animals brought her comfort.”

The Grand Baby Project delivers new life- like baby dolls to Assisted Living and Memory Care Communities free of charge through their Baby Shower events. The Project relies on corporate and private donations.



*Transcript is an actual recount of the live conversation

[00:00:00] Rayna Neises: Welcome to the best of 2023, A Season of Caring Podcast. This is Rayna Neises your host, and I’m excited to be able to bring you Encore Episodes of the top four podcasts of 2023. Thank you for joining me for stories of hope for family caregivers, breaking through the busy-ness and loneliness of life to see God, even in this season. Today’s podcast is our third most listened to in 2023. And I know you’re going to enjoy it.

[00:00:32] If you are a YouTuber, that’s actually one of the podcasts that’s available on YouTube. So you can check it out where you can actually see the little grandbaby who visited with us during our entire interview. Well, let me tell you a little bit more about Tonja Moon, the founder of The Grand Baby Project.

[00:00:49] Tonja is the mother, business owner, geriatric advocate, healthcare marketing strategist, and certified dementia care specialist. With over 15 years of leadership experience in the hospice and geriatric mental healthcare areas, her background in senior healthcare is broad and dynamic.

[00:01:07] Tonja started The Grand Baby Project in honor of her grandmother, Ruby Sims. She loved her five kids, but there was no doubt she loved her grandkids the most. During her battle with dementia, she was often confused, lonely, and angry. In the end, baby dolls and stuffed animals brought her comfort. The Grand Baby Project delivers new life like baby dolls to assisted living and memory care communities free of charge through their baby showers events. The project relies on corporate and private donations.

[00:01:35] Welcome Tonja. It’s so good to have you here today.

[00:01:37] Tonja Moon: Thank you. Glad to be here.

[00:01:39] Rayna Neises: Oh, so babies. Everybody loves babies. So tell me how you came up with The Grandbaby Project?

[00:01:45] Tonja Moon: Well, as you said in the bio, my grandmother had five children, but her grandkids were her whole world. And I’ve worked in the realm of dementia for quite a while professionally. So, you know, very familiar with dementia, the progression of the disease and all of that. But even though I’ve worked in the field for quite some time, there’s just nothing that prepares you when it happens at home.

[00:02:08] Hmm. And so I helped care for my grandmother, and the last couple of years were incredibly difficult. She became someone that was totally unknown to us. Hmm. And she was very confused, very angry, very mad all the time. And it was really a fluke how we kind of figured out that a baby doll, would calm her down and anytime she had a baby in her arms or in her hands or in bed with her, she was calm and she was a lot more peaceful and she had purpose.

[00:02:43] And it alleviated so much of her confusion. And so for years I had wanted to do this project because I knew that she wasn’t the only one. And so that was really it. I mean, it really came about pretty organically. And you know, let’s face it, as caregivers, sometimes you just need a five or 10 minute reprieve. And the baby dolls gave us that with her.

[00:03:06] Rayna Neises: That’s so amazing, and I love that not only that was your experience, but then as you’ve brought it into all of these different opportunities to interact with people who have dementia, it’s embraced in the same way.

[00:03:20] Tonja Moon: Mm-hmm. Yeah, very much. Very much so. When we put a doll in the arms of someone with dementia, Their entire face lights up and it takes them to a very happy place, even if they never had children of their own. I think one of the thing that’s been very surprising is how men with dementia respond to the dolls. They absolutely just, Love them. And almost immediately, even those that are non-verbal will start making sounds, trying to ooh and ah, and cuddle with the baby. And it’s just something that crosses all barriers. It really, really does. It crosses all demographics and all races. It, it’s amazing. It’s, it’s really something that the project is much, much more emotional than I ever thought it would be.

[00:04:13] The first baby shower we did, I think we delivered like 15 babies, and I did nothing but cry the whole time, because I just remember, my grandmother and, and how it was, and the response was the same through all of them. It’s very emotional to see them have just a glimpse of spark and happiness where their eyes have been just clouded.

[00:04:34] Rayna Neises: Yeah. It’s so amazing how that just connects to a place in everyone’s heart. Mm-hmm. that I think you wouldn’t expect it. And I know as a family member, so many times we think, oh, my loved one wouldn’t like that, or that wouldn’t work for them. So I love that you’ve seen this over all the years and all the different opportunities. How many babies have you gifted?

[00:04:55] Tonja Moon: Oh my goodness. Thousands Probably. Yeah. I mean it’s, it’s a lot . It’s, it’s a lot. And I, I laugh and I tell people the good thing is these babies sleep and they don’t keep me up at night. So yeah. it’s ok. It’s okay. .

[00:05:09] Rayna Neises: So tell us about the babies, because there are so many different kinds of baby dolls out there. Yes. But your babies are so realistic. You were sharing with me before we started recording that you actually had a lady yell at you for leaving your baby in the car because they look so realistic.

[00:05:25] Tonja Moon: You know, that was a big challenge. So, not to give away my age, but I remember being young and when I wanted a new baby doll, mom would take me down to the local toy store and there were rows and rows of baby dolls, and you just picked out the one you wanted. That doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, there are dolls that are available, but they’re typically theme-based from a movie or a cartoon or something like that, and it’s really hard to find. As we launched the project, I actually ordered about 15 different dolls off the internet because I knew for, for my professional work in dementia, I couldn’t have dolls that were very hard plastic. I couldn’t have dolls were their eyes blinked because how many times have you seen a doll with eyes that blink and one eye stuck open and the other one shut. Well, that would drive me crazy, much less someone with dementia, and so I had to be really cognizant of the dolls and the size. Because of just atrophy that takes place in the body as, as the disease progresses. And so finding the size was real important, but then finding the texture of the baby was super important because I needed something that felt life like that had the weight. Of a baby that was lifelike and was very soft. And so even when we’re choosing the clothing for the babies, we paid really close attention to the texture. And of course I wanted lifelike dolls. And when you go on and you just Google lifelike dolls, They’re super, super expensive. Yeah. I mean, they can be up to the hundreds of dollars.

[00:07:04] And so it really took us a while to find an economical doll that worked. And then I needed a doll offering that could be a boy or a girl. Right. And then I needed a doll offering that. Was Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Oriental. I didn’t want to leave anybody out and have any type of exclusion whatsoever. And so it, it was a challenge, but we did it. And I mean, our dolls are super lifelike. When I go to a meeting, if I’m meeting a, a corporate sponsor or something, I always bring a baby doll. I put it in a high chair, and invariably people stop and ask about the baby. Yeah. And so it’s a great conversation piece, but I did learn the hard way not to leave the babies in the backseat because I get yelled at in the Target parking lot by, by ladies who are like, it’s too hot. I’m in Texas. You can’t leave the baby in the car..

[00:07:54] So yeah, they’re very, very lifelike. They are, they’re very soft, they’re very cuddly. And that was really important because of, you know, the opportunity for the, the resident or patient to be able to hold something that holds a lot of texture for them.

[00:08:10] Rayna Neises: Yeah, just looking at the baby as we are talking on Zoom. I wanna just snuggle it. And so, and it’s on Zoom, , so they’re so neat.

[00:08:18] So I mentioned earlier just that people thinking maybe this isn’t a good fit for their loved one. I’m sure that you also run into maybe that embarrassment factor. Sure. Yeah. What’s your experience with that?

[00:08:32] Tonja Moon: So, You know, what I tell families is I had a, I had a family member who told me, you know, I’m not really big on this doll thing. I don’t like this. I mean, my mom’s got kids and grandkids and, that’s who she should be cuddling with. And so here’s the story that I tell when my grandmother her disease was, was fairly progressed, and I would go and visit. In the community that she was in, and I walked in one day and she kind of still knew me, but I walked in one day and she was very aggravated and upset with me because I did not tell her happy birthday. Hmm. , that was her birthday. So I said, it’s not your birthday, which never works. When you try to argue with someone, you think about

[00:09:14] So I went out on a mission to find her doctor in the community that day, and I got ahold of him and I said, look, you have got to do something. She thinks today’s her birthday, she’s having a terrible day and you ne her medicine. I need to know what it is and you’re doing something wrong. And he just stood there and took my lashing and he just said, so go make it her birthday.

[00:09:32] Mm-hmm. and I was like, what? So now I’m thinking, you’re a nut . Now I need a new doctor. So he said, Tonja, just make it her birthday. She’s in a birthday moment, so, okay. So I go back in and, and talk to her the next day. I go, I brought her a balloon. and a stuffed animal. We did that for over a month. Wow. We celebrated her birthday.

[00:09:54] I brought her the same stuffed animal every day and every couple days I bring a new balloon. I walk in one day and I said, Happy Birthday. And she’s like, what are you talking about? Today’s And so it’s kinda like you can’t win for losing, right? Yes. So I share that story because, , all we have are the moments.

[00:10:09] Mm-hmm. Hmm. , right. All we have are the moments and the hardest for me, the hardest thing to learn was to meet my grandmother where she was. Even though I knew that that was not based in reality. Yeah. I knew it. It, it was heart wrenching to me. And so I tell families just think about them. It’s not about you.

[00:10:32] Right. It’s about them. If we come across someone in one of our events and they don’t, they’re, we never force the babies on anyone ever, ever. We handle the babies though, as though they’re real. The way that we hold them, the way we protect their head, when we hand them over, they’re wrapped in a blanket, they have a diaper on.

[00:10:50] And so it just brings everybody down a notch. If someone’s like, no, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t want that. I’ll just say, okay, I’m gonna leave it with miss whomever. She’s gonna have the baby. And if you decide you’d like to take care of it, she’ll be here for you. That happens rarely. , if at all. And typically if it happens and I call back to follow up, the folks will tell me, oh, they’re rocking their baby.

[00:11:17] They, they wanted the baby because everybody around them has a baby. Mm-hmm. . And so, and then everybody wants to do stuff with their babies, you know, they wanna bring ’em to lunch and it just becomes their little companion. We wouldn’t think anything about giving them a puppy or a dog or, you know, whatever.

[00:11:33] And so, It’s, it’s companion, it’s cuddles, and it’s really, I say don’t look at it as like a baby doll, because it’s really a security blanket. That’s all it is. And it just gives them a little bit of purpose, which we tend to inadvertently strip away. Yes. When we are trying to help, you know, yeah, oh, don’t do that. You’re gonna get hurt, or you can’t have that, or you can’t have this. And so just giving them that little bundle of purpose goes a really long way.

[00:12:01] Rayna Neises: Definitely. . Yeah. And when I think of even those that aren’t dealing with dementia, obviously that’s your project and that’s, we talk about that a lot here on the podcast, but I’m thinking of those that are caring for, or even, even a distance. I think it’s such an important thing to remember. The moment is all that you have.

[00:12:21] Mm-hmm. . And no matter how cognitively aware they are or not aware, they are. Staying in the moment can make such a big difference. I had someone I was talking to at our support group whose dad is totally fine, but he is so independent, he doesn’t want any help at all, and she was just saying that they’ve just been struggling because he wants to be independent and she sees things she could do to help.

[00:12:43] She wants the house to be cleaner or she wants this to happen. And so after our conversation at Support group, she’s like, I was so proud of myself. I just went and visited and we just went to lunch and I stayed in the moment. So whether they’re. Having cognitive issues or not learning to stay in the moment with our loved ones, especially, I think our aging loved ones. Mm-hmm. is such a valuable gift because as we age we do slow down. Mm-hmm. cognitively, we are not the same as we were when we were 20. You or me or any of us, right? . And so knowing and acknowledging the moment is what we have, and just taking that deep breath and slowing it down and being in the moment mm-hmm.

[00:13:25] So I can totally see that when we learn to do that, even when there’s a, a baby doll involved, we’re all going to benefit from that. Mm-hmm. , so. Mm-hmm. , thank you for sharing that. I think that’s so, and

[00:13:36] Tonja Moon: I tell families too, a doctor told me this disease is harder on the family than it is on the patient. The patient is in their own place, in their own moment, and we are seeing all the aftershocks of that, and that’s what we’re trying to control and deal with. And so it’s much harder on the family. So recognizing that it’s grandma’s birthday when it’s not her birthday, but she is in that moment and she wants a cupcake. Then I gotta figure out how to get a cupcake. Mm-hmm. , because that’s going to be a moment, my grandmother’s been gone more than 10 years, but that’s the moment that I relish. Mm-hmm. , you know, that memory every day of walking in for almost three months. And I remember driving in traffic, like, I gotta get a cupcake or an ice cream cone or balloon. I have to show up with something, you know? And now it’s funny, but, I’m so grateful that I have those memories and I didn’t try to push it aside and not celebrate those little minutes with. Yeah.

[00:14:32] Rayna Neises: So important. Mm-hmm. .

[00:14:34] I know you’re enjoying Tanya’s experience with her grandmother and learning more about how the babies are impacting others even today who experiencing Alzheimer’s and dementia. I’m so glad that you’re here today. I wanted to take a moment to just hop on and share with you a brand new opportunity to be able to get some more support during your caregiving season. I know you are so busy and there were so many things going on. It’s hard because you need support when you need it.

[00:15:05] And I don’t know exactly when that is. So I am launching a brand new Take Heart Community of Christian Caregivers. It will be a membership that will allow you to log on. Ask questions, find resources and even receive a bonus. Of Content, Caregiver Magazine each month. Just for being a part of the group. I will be praying for you, offering scripture of encouragement as well as caregiver tips in the membership.

[00:15:37] And I am so excited about being able to put all of this together for you. It is still in process. You are the first to hear the name, Take Heart Community of Christian Caregivers. And if you would like to know more about it or be one of the first to receive information and just hop on my website at www.aseasonofcaring.com/im-in that’s www.aseasonofcaring.com/im-in I’ll add you to the waitlist. And you’ll be the very first to get information about how to sign up to be a part of this exclusive community. I can’t wait to get this started. All right enough about that. So let’s go back to our conversation with Tanya.

[00:16:19] So how could we support you? And if we are, again, I have all kinds of listeners and maybe there’s somebody that would like to connect and learn more about getting a baby for their loved one. But we’ll talk about that in a minute. But how could just a regular person that maybe is helping their loved one, find a purpose? Mm-hmm. , and they would love to be a part of what you do. Are there some opportunities there? Yes.

[00:16:43] Tonja Moon: So one thing that was really important to me was that we enlist volunteers at whatever level they can engage in with the project. And so I have a lot of volunteers that sew or they knit people sew us little small receiving blankets. And I tell people the color of the pattern, it’s all up to you. Use your creativity. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but every baby’s wrapped in a blanket when they’re delivered. I have folks that knit booties or knit hats, and they’re like, well, I’m not a great knitter. I’m like, it doesn’t matter. Or I have diaper drives. All of our babies go get diapers. And so you know, people will do a diaper driver or whatever. So we have an Amazon wishlist if people want to go on there. It can be found on our website and on our Facebook page. And, if you want to purchase babies, they can be a drop shipped to us..

[00:17:35] And then we take them out to the different communities and individuals that we serve. But I tell people I had a lady reach out to me recently and she said, my mother recently died and she was a big sewer, and I have all of these bibs and little baby things and blankets, and they may not be exactly what they’re looking for.

[00:17:57] I’m like, it doesn’t matter send them like, we will take it because I love giving other seniors purpose too, right? And Girl Scout troops are always, sending us little booties or, or whatever. And so, think of everything a baby needs. And so we always deliver a baby in a blanket, with a diaper on a real diaper, not a doll diaper. And a little newborn sleeper. And so I have groups that go to resale shops and buy newborn sleepers and send me boxes of them. All kinds of things. All I mean, anything. I have a little group that even likes they’ll, they’ll write cards and we’ll take cards out and deliver it with a baby. And their caregiver will read the cards to them and they get to keep it. And all of thing. So it’s really fun.

[00:18:40] Our residents that accept a baby. We make it a really big deal that they get to name their baby. And so that’s a really great cool part of the project. Sometimes we get good names, like this is Baby Christina. Or sometimes we get like, this is my baby bug and we just go with it in the moment. We’re in Texas, but any type of, pretty much baby gear I have kids that color pictures and we take those out. We will, we will take it. We will absolutely take it.

[00:19:07] Rayna Neises: That’s amazing. I love all the opportunities to be a part and support the project because, One of the things that can be challenging when we are caregiving for someone is the person might lose their purpose, but we also have to change where we get our hobbies and what things we can do as caregivers because of just limitations of being able to do some of the things we used to do.

[00:19:28] So one of the things I love to do that I hadn’t done in years until I started caring for my dad was crocheting. Mm-hmm. being able to make those project. And give them away is always a benefit in my world because I love to make them, but you’ll only need so many of things. Right, right. So. Right. It’s great to have a, a good cause to be able to donate them to.

[00:19:47] So you’ve mentioned the showers. So tell us a little bit what a baby shower looks like?

[00:19:52] Tonja Moon: Oh, it’s so fun. It’s kind of, you know, it’s what we live for. So most of the folks that we work with and help are in memory care communities or I, I mean, if we have a group of folks in the community that want to get together, with their loved ones that have dementia. We’ll do a baby shower. And so just think of all the baby shower things. We decorate in pink and blue. We have little baby shower food, we have punch, we have, you know, all of the little baby shower things. And then we come in and we’ve got wagons that all the babies are wrapped in. We walk in, everybody’s kind of sitting around together. And then myself and the volunteers, we just start presenting the babies. And typically we will just hand the baby over to the resident and say, Hey, we’ve got something really special for you today. And their eyes just kind of light up. And, and sometimes they’ll try to give it back to us like, okay, here you go.

[00:20:44] And I’ll say, no, this is your baby to keep. If you’d like to keep it. And they just are so excited. And so everybody gets a baby and then they really start talking among themselves in a group. Look at my baby, what about your baby? Or they’ll start rocking the baby, patting the baby, singing to the baby. They’ll wanna burp the baby.

[00:21:04] Everything’s all about kind of the babies at that point. We go around to each person and we ask them, what’s the name of their baby? And so that en elicits a whole conversation. And then they get to eat and have their snacks and all of that. And typically, I’ll say we try to time our baby showers mid-morning because that’s when typically they’re much more alert as they’re going, you know, into lunch around 11. We wanna be done by the time lunch comes around and then we talk to them and we’re like, okay, let’s put our babies down for a nap so that we can have lunch. And they’ll go and put their baby down or we’ll help them or whatever.

[00:21:37] And then we kind of skid down out and we leave the babies with them. And it’s fun. A lot of times the families will come, A lot of times all the workers in the community want to come and be a part of it because it’s so fun and they all want pictures with their babies.

[00:21:52] We just look at it as a big baby shower party and I’ll say, the babies are coming. The babies are coming. And it is, it is so fun because it’s very unexpected. They, they know that there’s decorating and things going on, but they’re not real sure why. Mm-hmm. and so, When they are handed the baby, it, it now, it kind of clicks. It all makes sense. So it’s a lot of fun.

[00:22:14] The men are the best. The men are awesome. They are so funny. They, they want to like, you know, roughhouse with the babies and bounce ’em on their knees and, and a lot of times the men want two, which is really fun. So we always take extra because some people want two. Yeah. It just, you know, it elicits a lot of very interesting conversation. I had a lady tell me just last week, she needed two boys because both of her sons were killed in action. Mm-hmm. And so we weren’t sure if this story was true or not. And I got with her main caregiver and she said, yes, her sons were killed in action, but she hasn’t spoken about her sons in over two years. Wow. And so it was a very emotional day for her, but she was so incredibly happy. So,

[00:22:56] Rayna Neises: That’s neat. Yeah. What Joy, how fun. So tell my audience how they can connect with you and Yes. Be able to be a part of your mission.

[00:23:05] Tonja Moon: Absolutely. Thank you. So the easiest way to connect with us is at www.Thegrandbabyproject.org. That will take you directly to our Facebook page. On our Facebook page. You can purchase for a donation of $50. You’ll get a baby. We mail you a baby, just like we take out with the diaper, with the blanket, the new outfit, the whole nine yards for a donation of $50.

[00:23:27] Or you can donate via our Amazon wishlist. , the link is on there. You can purchase babies and send them out. They’ll come to us and you know, we’ll take them out in the community. You can purchase diapers, you can purchase clothes, whatever you want.

[00:23:42] And then on the website also is our address. If you’ve got things that you just wanna put in a box in mail, we’ll take that too. So we’re pretty easy to reach. We’re also on Facebook at the Grandbaby project

[00:23:54] That’s great.

[00:23:54] Rayna Neises: Thank you so much for sharing today, Tonja. Such an unusual thing. I loved it when I ran into you and, and what you’re doing and what joy you’re bringing. So thank you again for being a guest today.

[00:24:04] Tonja Moon: Yes, absolutely. Thank you.

[00:24:07] Rayna Neises: Thank you listeners, for joining us. And just a reminder, A Season of Caring Podcast has been created for the enjoyment of family caregivers. If you have financial, legal, or medical questions, be sure to consult your local professionals and take heart in your season of caring.

            Meet Your Host

Rayna Neises

Rayna Neises, ACC

Author of No Regrets: Hope for Your Caregiving Season, Editor of Content Magazine, ICF Certified Coach, Speaker, Podcast Host, & Positive Approach to Care® Independent Trainer offering encouragement, support, and resources to those who are in a Season of Caring for Aging Parents.

Her passion is for those caring and their parents, so that both might be seen, not forgotten & cared for, not neglected.

Would you like to be a Guest?  |  Email Rayna

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