I'll never forget my children's faces as they stared at their grandfather, who just days before was smart, sweet and funny. There was horror, pain and confusion in their young eyes as they watched their agitated grandfather insist I put his dentures in my purse and take them home. He thought the nurses were going to steal is teeth.
Dad had just had brain surgery that was meant to drain fluid from his brain. The fluid was damming up behind scar tissue left by a WWII brain injury. This surgery is generally successful. For Dad, it was not. He came out of surgery severely demented. I had brought the boys to the hospital to see Dad, after explaining the changes he had undergone as best I could. But there is no way to truly prepare kids for this kind of thing.
My kids had always been close to my parents. They'd all had a lot of fun together when the boys were small. This sudden change was baffling and frightening to the kids. I was struggling with my own fear and grief, plus I was trying to help my mother cope.
My kids, and my sister's boys who were even younger than mine, faced a sudden, traumatic change in their grandfather - such as can happen after a grandparent (or parent) suffers a debilitating stroke. Most kids who see their grandparents regularly, and watch a slow decline from Alzheimer's, or other dementia, will have a little more time to adjust. But the changes are still hard to comprehend.
Parents need to be aware that their children are suffering a huge loss, as their grandparent declines. It's easy to forget this as we struggle with our own pain.
I'm happy to see that today's increased awareness of Alzheimer's disease and dementia has found its way into the world of children's books. Two that I've recently read and found impressive are Still My Grandma, written by Veronique Van den Abeele and illustrated by Claude K. Dubois and What's Happening to Grandpa?, written by Maria Shriver and illustrated by Sandra Speidel.
Both books are attempts to help children understand that their Alzheimer's afflicted grandparents are changing in ways that can't be helped and that they, the children, can still contribute to their grandparents' quality of life.
Still My Grandma has less text and is the simpler of the two, likely a first choice for the younger child. In the book, a little girl is used to having precious alone time with her grandma. They have their rituals. The book is charming, as are the illustrations. It leads the child through her grandma's decline and into the nursing home where the child acknowledges her sadness at the changes in her grandma, but finds ways to be helpful and still have fun with her.
What's Happening to Grandpa? is much more text intensive, though not hard to understand. I see it as one that should be read to a child even if the child can easily read it him or herself. The subject is one to be shared, not read, by the child, alone. The illustrations are beautiful, somewhat realistic sketches, also lending a more mature slant to the book. Shriver's book is a graceful offering up of some excellent ways an older child could help a dementia inflicted elder.
I'm excited to see these and other helpful books available to help parents guide their youngsters through this difficult period. Dementia in a loved one is hard enough for an adult to comprehend. For a child with a more limited world view, it's nearly impossible.
My boys learned to adapt to their grandfather's strange behavior, and later, to both grandmothers' different types of dementia. The process of learning to understand dementia is riddled with grief. Reading a child a book about the subject isn't going to make him or her suddenly feel, "Oh, yeah, now I get it!"
However, I believe a young child having to cope with a grandparent's dementia could benefit from these books, and others, if the parents are looking for ways to help their children along the long, confusing journey that stretches before them.