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Originally published in the Winston-Salem Journal
By FRAN DANIEL – Associated Press – Sunday, October 18, 2015
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)
Janet Tompkins has had a fondness for the elderly since she was a child growing up in Sparta.
She said she often sat on her grandmother’s lap and visited elderly neighbors, and felt so comfortable with them.
“That’s why I became a speech therapist,” Tompkins said. “When I was in college I received the Spirit of Audrey Holland award. My classmates voted on it. It was based on which student they would like to see work with their adult family member.”
Now, at 50, Tompkins has formed a company called My Comfort Companion to make rag dolls for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. She has plans to expand her line with different products.
Alzhemier’s is a progressive disease that causes memory impairment.
“There are over 5 million people in the United States with Alzheimer’s,” Tompkins said.
My Comfort Companion is a division of Speechpath Tools LLC, a company that offers tools specifically designed to improve speech and language for adults with difficulties in those areas. The Speechpath Tools products are sold to speech pathologists to use with their patients, and include double-sided image therapy cards, reminiscence puzzles, magnetic shapes and reminiscence books.
Tompkins has worked for the past 15 years as a speech pathologist, traveling throughout the country and working with patients who have suffered from stroke, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. She said that her rag dolls are designed just for comfort and to help with memory loss.
“I want to be clear,” Tompkins said. “Alzheimer’s cannot be prevented or cured or slowed down.”
The rag dolls come in a variety of bright colors and are made 100 percent of fabric.
They have a lavender scent aimed at providing a calming and soothing effect on people. In addition, they have fabric textures and details such a flower, bows and buttons to occupy people’s “busy hands, to prevent them from becoming agitated,” Tompkins said.
The rag dolls have a heart-shaped name label and a pocket for photos or keepsakes aimed at helping with memory and to encourage interaction.
“I found a lot of times people would have trouble remembering their family members’ names,” Tompkins said. “They can write their name on the photo and it helps with remembering their name or events in their life.”
She said several women who have the dolls have told her they put candy, money, napkins or eyeglasses in their pocket.
The rag dolls also have additional weight in the bottom.
“It’s just an extra sensory aid to make them feel more secure,” Tompkins said. “We designed the doll to feel like a pillow, so it’s huggable.”
Each doll comes with a mini-book designed to create interaction with people’s loved ones.
She said that a lot of times, people with Alzheimer’s and dementia will sit for long periods of time.
“It feels good to have something to hold,” she said.
Tompkins said some people buy the rag dolls, then give them away in memory of loved ones.
Kathy Long, vice president of Adult Day Services for Senior Services Inc. in Winston-Salem, said she believes that Tompkins’ rag dolls are a great idea.
“I think they are absolutely wonderful,” Long said. “The more senses you explore with people with dementia, the more they are going to understand and be able to see and feel. Their mind is still available to make some memories. The dolls probably remind them of an earlier time in their life, when that was a happy time.
She said there are still some “fidget aprons” on the market so the flowers on the dolls are similar to those.
Long said that people with dementia usually have their hands moving and doing things.
She said she has seen products on the market that have some of the features of Tompkins’ dolls, but she has not seen dolls with a lavender scent.
“I use lavender spray,” Long said.
She said lavender is good “for the basic calming effect that it gives people.”
She said she has not seen the pockets, either, on dolls but believes they are a good reminiscing feature.
“You have to meet people where they are at,” Long said. “With early stage dementia, these dolls are probably not necessary, but as they get further advanced, those things are wonderful.”
Getting in business and the future
Tompkins got the idea for the rag dolls while working part time as a speech pathologist for a nursing home in Galax, Va., in 2013. She said many patients would get agitated or wander, so she, other therapists and nurses would get something to occupy their time.
She found that the items often were not age-appropriate, including dolls.
“A lot of them, sometimes, would be designed for a younger age group,” she said.
She also said that family members would often tell her they didn’t know what to buy their loved ones in the nursing homes, especially for holidays and special occasions.
“I wanted to create something that was especially designed for them,” she said of people with all forms of dementia and their family members.
Getting a prototype was the hardest part of creating her rag dolls, she said.
Jetta Browning of Sparta and a member of the Alleghany Quilt Guild did Tompkins’ initial prototypes.
“I went to her house and she and I just kept going back-and-forth, so she created a pattern,” Tompkins said. “We would change it.”
She estimated they did six versions of that initial prototype.
Next, Tompkins looked for a manufacturer.
She wanted to make the dolls in the United States and had three manufacturers, including one in Hickory, make prototypes but soon found it wouldn’t be cost-effective to have them made in this country.
“If they were so high and people couldn’t afford them, that would defeat the whole purpose,” she said.
She ended up using a manufacturer in Vietnam whom she was introduced to through a friend who lived overseas. Currently, the dolls sell at retail for $49.95.
Tompkins said that $1 sold on her company website from the sale of every My Comfort Companion will be donated to Alzheimer’s research.
She operates My Comfort Companion in the Blue Ridge Business Development Center at 115 Atwood St. in Sparta. She received her first shipment of 1,000 rag dolls in mid-August.
“This is our first run, so we were limited on what the factory would do for us,” Tompkins said. “On our next run, we’re doing a beagle for men. Then we want to do all different ethnicities and possibly holiday additions.”
Bo the Beagle will have a vanilla scent, photo pocket and name label just like the rag dolls. But instead of a book, this flush beagle will have a bandana.
Tompkins sells the rag dolls on her website, MyComfortCompanion.com, and in a few stores – A Touch of Grace in Sparta, Heritage Hallmark in Abindgon, Va., and Scarlet Begonias and Scenic Gifts in Mount Airy.
Phyllis Miller, the owner of A Touch of Grace in Sparta, said she was one of the first to get the dolls and that shoppers have been interested in them.
“I think they are great,” she said. “Anybody that has a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s, I think they would definitely be interested in them.”
She said she believes people receiving the dolls would enjoy them, too.
Tompkins has a lot of ideas to grow her business. She wants to work with nonprofit groups, including churches. She recently gave a presentation at a Hospice chapter in Sparta and has talked to health-care facilities in Florida about using the dolls. She is trying to get her products in stores in Winston-Salem, and is also looking for business partners and investors.
“We have a copyright on the design and we have registered the name,” she said.
She said she has learned a lot about selling at retail, because her Speechpath Tools products are sold primarily through a distributor to speech pathologists.
With My Comfort Companion, she’s doing the work all by herself.
“I’ve learned about resourcing everything from fabric, to graphic artists to people who do prototypes, to manufacturers, to quality control,” Tompkins said.
She is so passionate about helping people with Alzheimer’s that she reminds people every chance she gets about the national walks for Alzheimer’s held in the fall.
While her Speechpath Tools therapy products serve a smaller market, Tompkins believes that her My Comfort Companion products will have a broader appeal.
“I could see it being at a more national level,” she said.