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What’s Happening to Grandpa? Explaining Dementia to Children

What's Happening to Grandpa FeaturedSince my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia in April of 2016, one difficult thing about it has been knowing what to say to our children and grandchildren. We followed the neurologists’ instruction to immediately tell our grown children about the diagnosis, but we haven’t yet taken them up on their strong suggestion that we get our five children and their spouses together with one of their experts for “Family Counseling.” With four sons whose wives also work and a daughter in VA who would have to be Skyped in, it seems impossible to coordinate schedules. We’ll have to try harder!

Family Counseling

That was brought home to me today when I went to lunch with a son who asked questions that I didn’t know how to answer. In the beginning stages, it’s normal for symptomatic behavior to come and go, so some things I notice aren’t noticed by family members who don’t see him very often and some are. I don’t want to paint a picture of his behavior that’s darker or more positive than reality, but sometimes I’m not sure what reality is.

Caregiver Support Group

In my church congregation, there are quite a few women who are either caring for aging parents or spouses with dementia. Inspired by the Alzheimer’s Association, I started an informal “Caregivers’ Support Group” that meets in my home once a month. Last month, one of the women brought in a children’s book titled, Wilford Gordon McDonald Partridge, by Julie Vivas. She read it aloud to us and brought most of us to tears. I already had What’s Happening to Grandpa? By Maria Shriver. That sent us on a search of other books for children or young adults that could answer questions about dementia in a tender, non-clinical way. Everyone there agreed it was a good idea to blog about this perhaps under-used resource.

4 Children’s Books about Dementia – Brief Summaries

Wilfred Gordon McDonald PartridgeWilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge,  written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas  (Paperback, 1989)

Wilfrid, a young boy, lives next door to a nursing home where he loves to visit 96-year-old Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper. She’s his “favorite friend” there because she has four names, just like he does. When he learns that she has “lost her memory,” he asks other residents what a memory is. Their answers prompt him to gather up “memories” of his own to give to her. While handling Wilfrid’s “memories,” Nancy finds and shares some of her own. In a way that is not-at-all patronizing, Mem Fox shows us how children and adults can help the elderly remember things. [This book is my favorite so far.]

What's Happening to GrandpaWhat’s Happening to Grandpa? Written by Maria Shriver and illustrated by Sandra Speidel (Hardcover, 2004)

Ms. Shriver’s book focuses a little more on educating both children and adults about the symptoms of the Alzheimer’s form of dementia. She first draws in her readers by helping us get to know Kate and her Grandma and Grandpa before Kate notices that her Grandpa is changing in ways she doesn’t understand. Kate asks and gets answers to her many questions about her grandpa, but she also resolves to find a way to share and preserve her grandpa’s memories and her memories of him. Ms. Shriver says, “My hope is that this book will inspire children to find creative ways to keep [their grandparents’] stories alive, and that readers of all ages will realize how important it is to cherish the lives, love and memories of our grandparents—now and forever.”

WeedsWeeds in Nana’s Garden, written and illustrated by Kathryn Harrison (Paperback, 2016)

In this colorfully illustrated book, the first thing a young girl notices is not quite right is that her Nana has let weeds grow in her usually well-kept garden. Her mom helps to explain Alzheimer’s by comparing it to a tangle of weeds in Nana’s brain that get in the way of her thoughts and memories, while reminding her that “Nana is still Nana underneath.” The story gives examples of the progression of the disease, including Nana not being able to remember her granddaughter’s name, even though she still remembers the names of the flowers and the songs they sing together. At the end of the story there are two pages of “Answers to Questions from Kids.” For every book purchased, $1.00 goes to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

GrammyWhen My Grammy Forgets, I remember: A Child’s Perspective on Dementia, written by Toby Haberkorn and illustrated by Heather Varkarotas (Paperback, 2015)

Inspired by her own family’s experiences with her mother’s dementia, this author uses half of the book just describing things a young girl’s Grammy used to be able to do, then without a transition, the girl begins describing things her Grammy does that seem a little strange. Perhaps the most beneficial message comes when the girl asks her mom “Does Grammy still love me?” Her mom replies, “Yes, she will always love you.” There is a bit of a role reversal as the girl reads to her Grammy, guides her on walks and tries to make her smile. Every page ends with “I hug my Grammy tight.” Of the four, I think this book is the least valuable, but it also includes some symptoms of dementia not mentioned in the others.

These books and others can be ordered online. Search for other titles on Amazon.com and alz.org. With 13 grandchildren ages 1-24, I plan to add to my collection of books about dementia for children and young adults. The four books I’ve summarized here are just a taste of what’s available!

by Marti Lythgoe, DTN Home Care Writer/Editor

Other books and movies from Alzheimer’s.org and Amazon

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