age range: 4-8 years
topics / themes: Alzheimer’s Disease
Paulette Sharkey’s website
Please tell us about your book.
A Doll for Grandma: A Story about Alzheimer’s Disease is my debut picture book, for ages 4-8, illustrated by Samantha Woo and published May 5, 2020 by Beaming Books. It’s about a little girl named Kiera who has a special bond with her grandmother. When Grandma develops Alzheimer’s and must move into a memory-care home, Kiera finds that the old ways they played together no longer work. She embraces the changes in Grandma to figure out a new way to connect and sustain their relationship.
What inspired you to write this story?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease affects 5.7 million Americans. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. With the incidence of Alzheimer’s rising at alarming rates, most children know someone with the disease. I wanted to write a book to help them understand what is happening to their grandparent, aunt, uncle, neighbor.
The story is personal, too. It grew out of my experiences playing the piano for residents of memory-care homes and from caring for family members with dementia.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I’ve been a volunteer pianist for about 15 years. I play at all kinds of senior facilities, including assisted-living and memory-care. The work is interesting, gratifying, sometimes heartbreaking. I blog about it here.
Music gives us a powerful way to reach people who have Alzheimer’s. Music can relieve their anxiety and spark memories. Those who can’t recognize family or friends can recognize and respond to music, if it’s the right kind. Even those who can no longer speak can usually sing old, familiar songs. Somehow the music unlocks the lyrics from their long-term memory. We usually have the strongest emotional response to music from our youth. So for my elderly audiences I play a lot of songs from the World War II era.
What are some special challenges associated with writing for children about Alzheimer’s Disease?
While working on A Doll for Grandma, I read every children’s book about Alzheimer’s disease I could find. I’m sorry to say that many were very dry stories that a child would not naturally gravitate toward. I wanted my book to be more accessible. The biggest challenge was making a disease like Alzheimer’s understandable to children. One of my best lines, I think, comes when Kiera’s mother explains what is happening to Grandma by saying, “Grandma’s brain is forgetting how to remember.”
To create the character of Grandma, I drew on things I’d observed in many different people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias—family members I had cared for and people I had played the piano for. Not every person has every symptom. Grandma is a composite I used to show common emotional symptoms (like anger, confusion) and physical symptoms (like fidgeting, difficulties walking).
But there are also lighter moments in the story. Even with dementia, people can experience great joy. A therapy dog scene, for example, came directly from an activity my mother enjoyed in a hospice facility just a few days before she died. And a funny “piano lady” scene in the book is a nod to my own volunteer work.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
A Doll for Grandma would be perfect for the Social Emotional Learning curriculum. The book can be used to open the door to conversations about aging, empathy, kindness, adapting to change, intergenerationality, and accepting and loving people as they are.
I’ve seen how faces light up when children drop by a senior facility, so I hope the book will be used to help children prepare for a visit. A memory-care home is a setting seldom depicted in children’s books. I wanted to show what goes on there so that it could be a little more familiar and a little less frightening.
A Doll for Grandma shows kids how to best interact with people living with some type of dementia: just as they are, without trying to change them or bring them back into our world. Look for ways to connect, to have happy moments. They are still the people we loved before, despite the changes their disease causes.