Recently I discovered a children’s book, Grandma, that tells a story, from a child’s point of view, about a much-loved grandmother who develops dementia. As an educator, I’ve often thought about the need for books that help children understand the disease while illustrating how to continue to love and support a family member who experiences dramatic memory changes. Only now, years after my family lost my husband’s mother to this terrible brain disease, are children’s books that address dementia beginning to appear.
Grandma, an easy-to-read picture book written and illustrated by Jessica Shepherd, fits the bill. Young Oscar shares his thoughts about his grandmother, describing the fun they have, the fond ways they interact, and the changes that have come about since she “started forgetting a lot of things.” He describes how she lives in a new community, with caregivers, and tells about his visits.
The stylized illustrations are made to look like children’s drawings, and one maps out the layout of Oscar’s grandmother’s new home. Another charming set shows Grandma as seen by Oscar and Grandma as she remembers herself. The book celebrates the love between grandchildren and grandparents, but it does not whitewash dementia symptoms and the concomitant problems that arise.
Children today need to know about dementia, a disease that occurs and will occur ever more frequently to elderly family members. At the end of Grandma a two-page spread (FAQ) answers questions that a child might ask if a grandparent is forgetting a lot of things and experiencing anger and frustration that can accompany so much forgetting. When they understand more about the disease, children can do what they do naturally — talking, sharing, and recalling memories when they visit without being squeamish. Most of us have observed how even the sickest grandparent lights up when grandchildren enter the room.
When my husband’s mother lived at Chesterbrook Residences, a wonderfully supportive and family-friendly assisted living community in Northern Virginia, I often saw children (and sometimes pets) visiting grandparents. At special events and meals it was fun to see residents with a child or even two nearby. When the children headed home, the positive effect of their presence remained long after they departed.
As we move into an era where more and more families include an elderly person with a brain illness, we will need more children’s books like Grandma, stories that can help children understand that grandparents — despite illnesses that frustrate and limit their attitudes, activities, and memories — are still grandparents.