The aging process is a very difficult thing for anyone to comprehend. Explaining what is happening when Grandma or Grandpa starts to lose their memory or perhaps starts acting differently due to dementia or Alzheimer’s is especially challenging because there is no easy way to explain why it is happening. Finding ways to open the conversation with your children and grandchildren is important as are coming up with coping mechanisms. As with most difficult topics, there are a slew of picture books out there that try to open the door to understanding.
One of the biggest challenges with children, is that when we start to explain that someone is losing their memory, children aren’t exactly sure what that means. In “Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge,” little Wilfrid gets a lesson in what memories are. He grew up “next door to an old people’s home, and he knew all of the people who lived over there.” One day he hears his parents talking about how his favorite resident, Ms. Nancy, has lost her memory. When the concept confused him, he goes over to the retirement home and asks many of the residents what a memory is. They each give him wonderful responses and Wilfrid decides to gather up wonderful things of his own to give to Nancy since she is losing her memory. While his treasures initially confuse her, they do help her remember some special moments from her own childhood. A very sweet story and a marvelous look at not only how special memories are, but how special they can make us feel.
One way to start a conversation with children focuses less about what their grandparents are going to lose and try to look at the pieces that help them remember, since these things are often aspects that children can help them hold on to. In Alison Acheson’s touching story, “Grandpa’s Music,” Callie’s grandfather moves in with her family as his memory begins to fade – an important part in understanding the aging process for any older adult. The family makes a routine so that “grandpa will know what step comes next.” It is only Callie, however, who realizes that Grandpa doesn’t want to be a burden and so she gives him responsibilities that he can still handle – gardening, peeling potatoes, kneading bread and making music. As time passes, he becomes less able to do those things, but his music still remains as connective tissue to his past and Callie sits and sings with him whenever she gets the chance. Even when he has to transition into an assisted living facility, seeing the piano in the common room gives him comfort.
With the same respect for music and the fact that sometimes your muscles remember what to do even when your mind doesn’t, Sarah Lynn’s “Tip-Tap Pop” is a sweet story about a little girl who loves to tap dance with her grandfather. As Pop ages, he starts forgetting things, even Emma’s birthday. Rather than dancing around, he sits quietly in his chair. Emma is saddened by his changes and then realizes that a brief moment of memory brings his dancing feet back, if for a moment or two. The story glosses over some of the harder aspects of Alzheimer’s, but is a good place to start for young children.
Finding the connection that a grandchild can still have with their aging grandparent is important. Just like Callie had music with her grandfather and Emma had tap dancing, in Émilie Rivard’s “Really and Truly,” Charlie and his grandfather share a love of a tall tale. His grandfather always told him stories, really and truly! But now that Charlie is older, his grandfather not only doesn’t tell stories, he has “an awful disease [that is] eating up his memory and his words. It has even swallowed up his smile.” Suddenly, Charlie makes up his own story and when he says the magic line, “really and truly,” a spark of recognition appears on his grandfather’s face. Charlie takes on his Grandfather’s magical power of story telling to bring him out of his fog for a moment or two. While his grandfather doesn’t always recognize him, he continues to be the story teller with “the power to find the right story to make him smile.”
While these stories are very sweet, the reality is that it can be a very frightening experience for kids when their grandparents start to lose their memories. In “Always My Grandpa,” by Linda Scacco, young Daniel looks forward to spending his summer vacation with his grandpa, but this year Grandpa starts to change as the summer progresses. Daniel learns that since Grandpa has Alzheimer’s disease, he will increasingly have trouble remembering all of the things that belong to him – his clothes, his words, his memories – and eventually, his own grandson. This is a heartwarming tale describing what it is like to be close to a grandparent who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In a similar vein, “Still My Grandma,” by Véronique Van den Abelee, celebrates the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter while showing the challenge as grandma begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. One day Grandma forgets her granddaughter’s name. Another day she puts her shoes in the refrigerator. This is a sensitive way to introduce a young reader to the realities of Alzheimer’s disease and a reminder that love is more powerful than any illness.
Making memory boxes and scrapbooks is an important theme that you will see come up repeatedly in books about Alzheimer’s. As with “Still My Grandma,” in Maria Shriver’s “What’s Happening to Grandpa” Shriver walks a girl through acceptance and a beginning understanding of her Grandpa’s condition after her grandfather starts repeating the same stories over and over again. Kate questions not just what can be done to address the changes Alzheimer’s will bring within her own family but she also tries to place her concern in the larger context of growing old. She decides how to help her grandfather as he goes through this difficult time. Together they sit down with a box of photographs and his still-intact memories and create a scrapbook so that “the important memories of my life will forever be in my heart.”
Help a young child find ways to understand what is going on with their beloved grandparents with any of these marvelous books.