THE STORY BEHIND GRANNY CAN’T REMEMBER ME: A CHILDREN’S BOOK ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S by Susan McCormick
The story behind the story of Granny Can’t Remember Me, my lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, involves our family’s all-too-common experience with my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Almost six million Americans have dementia, often from Alzheimer’s disease, and this number will grow quickly as the population ages. That’s a lot of grandparents, and a lot of grandchildren, like my two boys, who need coping skills for this sometimes scary and sad family situation. Through reading and trial and error, we developed simple strategies which helped immensely and brought joy to the time with my mom. However, it took a while to come up with our tools and tricks, and during that time, my boys definitely witnessed my mom getting agitated when she knew her memory was going and we didn’t know how to shape our conversations so they were pleasurable for all. I hope my book can help children enjoy their experience with their grandparents, even with and allowing for the dementia.
We learned from several books to not ask any questions, because this would make my mother, and most people with dementia, anxious and worried. Before her Alzheimer’s progressed, she 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 bingo and milkshakes day. I love bingo and milkshakes.” Then my mom could join in with, “I love chocolate milkshakes best of all.” A topic my mom never tired of was Albert, our huge, slobbery Newfoundland dog. She loved anything about him. The boys could say, “Albert ate an ink cartridge yesterday.” Then my mom would say, “Oh, Albert, what a dog! What a mess!” The boys knew to say anything to keep the conversation going, just no questions. In the book, six-year-old Joey doesn’t ask his Granny what she ate for lunch, even if it’s macaroni and cheese, because he knows she can’t remember.
Another trick was to have a story my boys knew Granny enjoyed, like Albert the dog jumping up to put his head in a pot on the stove to see what was cooking. They could tell the same story over and over; my mom always loved it and couldn’t remember that she’d heard it before, and they always had 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 barber shop or when Jim got a bump on his head playing catch with rocks.
My boys knew my mother when she was very sharp and then throughout her years of decline with Alzheimer’s. There are some things which are hard for children. My mom didn’t smile at all; she had what they call a “mask-like facies.” This can happen with Alzheimer’s or with the medication that Alzheimer’s patients take. The boys didn’t know this and it bothered them. I show this through the Granny in the book. Kids are resilient, though, and they accept the changes that come with Alzheimer’s much more easily than an adult who mourns the person who used to be. My boys were adaptable, and they were able to be with their grandmother whatever her current space or reality. When they first entered her room, they would always say, “Hi, Granny, it’s me, James,” or, “It’s me, Peter.” If they didn’t do this, they would be greeted by my mom with, “Which one are you?”
We never questioned anything my mom said. My mom was wheelchair bound for some time, but once she told me she and the boys blew bubbles at the beach that morning, something they had done ten years earlier in another state. All I said was what fun they all must have had, and she smiled and said they had. Another time I told her James was learning to drive, and it was hard for him to learn to drive a manual transmission because so few cars were stick shifts. My mom brightened and said, “My car is a stick shift. He’s welcome t borrow it.” Instead of telling my mom that she hadn’t driven in years and that 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 doesn’t tell his Granny that her dog is no longer with them, he just goes along with her story.
These methods, not asking questions, going with the flow of the mind of the person with dementia, telling favorite stories, served my boys and our family well. In the books, though Granny can’t remember Joey likes soccer and rockets and dogs, with her 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 a doctor who lives in Seattle. 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.