by Susan McCormick
Granny Can’t Remember Me, my lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, was motivated by our family’s experience with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. My sons witnessed her agitation when she knew her memory was failing, yet we learned how to shape our conversations so they were pleasurable for all. My boys always started a visit with my mom with, “Hi, Granny, it’s me, James, or it’s me, Peter.” This set my mother up to know she was the grandmother and this was her grandchild. If not for those clear introductions, my sons would be greeted with, “Which one are you?” I wrote this book for children like mine, who need coping skills for this sometimes scary and sad all-too-common family situation.
We learned not to ask any questions, because this would make my mother anxious and worried. Before her Alzheimer’s progressed, my lawyerly mom would try to figure out why she didn’t know the answer, and she would often try to fake an answer or turn the conversation away from the question. This upset her. So, my boys would just state the facts and start a conversation. “Today is Friday and it’s root beer floats and milkshakes day. I love root beer floats and milkshakes.” Then my mom could join in with, “I love chocolate milkshakes best of all.” In the book, six-year-old Joey doesn’t ask his Granny what she ate for lunch because he knows she can’t remember.
Another trick was to have a story my boys knew my mother enjoyed, usually about Albert, our huge, slobbery Newfoundland dog. The boys could say, “Albert got stuck in the pantry and ate an entire bag of flour.” Then my mom would say, “Oh, Albert, what a dog! What a mess!” They could tell the same story over and over; my mom always loved it and couldn’t remember that she’d heard it before, which always presented an interesting conversation topic. Alternatively, they encouraged my mom to tell her favorite stories. In Granny Can’t Remember Me, Joey hears Granny’s stories again and again, how Mom cut Uncle Jim’s hair playing barbershop or when Jim got a bump on his head playing catch with rocks.
We never questioned anything my mom said. When I told her James wanted to learn to drive a manual transmission but couldn’t find a car with a stick shift, my mom brightened and said, “My car is a stick shift, he’s welcome to borrow it.” Instead of telling my mom she hadn’t driven in years and that her car was long gone, I said, “Thank you, I’ll let him know.” She beamed, knowing she was helping. In Granny Can’t Remember Me, Joey knows his grandmother’s dog was alive long before he was born, but he doesn’t tell this to Granny, he just goes along with her story.
These methods, not asking questions, going with the flow of the mind of the person with dementia, and telling favorite stories, served my boys and our family well. In the book, though Granny can’t remember Joey likes soccer and rockets and dogs, with the endearing stories of her Three Best Days, Joey knows she loves him just the same. Granny Can’t Remember Me shows a boy’s acceptance and love for his grandmother despite her unfortunate illness. I hope the story helps other families dealing with dementia as well.
Susan McCormick is an author and doctor who lives in Seattle. She also wrote The Fog Ladies, a cozy murder mystery with spunky senior sleuths set in an elegant apartment building in San Francisco. She graduated from Smith College and George Washington University Medical School, with additional medical training in San Francisco and Washington, DC. She served as a doctor for nine years in the US Army before moving to the Pacific Northwest. She is married and has two boys. Her mother and father-in-law had Alzheimer’s disease.
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Author Website: https://susanmccormickbooks.com