September is Dementia Awareness month. The 21st of September is World Alzheimer’s Day. According to the Alzheimer’s Australia website there are more than 342,800 Australians living with dementia - from age 30 upwards.
As an author who works in Aged Care facility, I interact daily with people affected by dementia and their families. This interaction was what inspired my picture book Lucas and Jack. I hoped reading it might help people understand that what they see on the surface of an older person, especially a person with dementia, is not the whole story.
The theme for this year’s Awareness Month is “Remember Me”. Perhaps one of the most painful presentations of Dementia symptoms is the loss of memory. The inability of a loved one to remember special times and people can be truly hurtful and difficult for families to cope with. For young children, symptoms of dementia in a relative can be frightening and upsetting.
However, the latest dementia research shows that there are still many ways for us to remain connected. Some of the most successful seem to be based around arts and creative sessions such as storytelling and music. These are exciting breakthroughs in managing the journey through dementia, meaning less isolation and distress and more connection and quality of life, for both the person with dementia and their family.
I believe that all stories are bridges. They are bridges TO things and ideas like empathy, literacy, resilience and imagination. Perhaps most important of all, they are also bridges BETWEEN things, such as people who think they are too different to be able to connect. I see picture books one of the most magical manifestations of story because they speak symbolically through pictures as well as logically through words, to our conscious and unconscious mind in equal measure.
This is why reading a picture book together as a family can be a wonderful way to maintain a link with a person who may have lost the ability to process and express words. The ‘Pictures to Share’ website in its Helping children visit people with dementia article, says: "This type of activity doesn't require a ‘proper conversation' to be maintained, but still creates a sense of shared activity that can be enjoyed by both parties and maintain a sense of the person with dementia/Alzheimer's still being able to offer something to the relationship".
I recall watching a little girl read her dementia affected ‘Big Nana’ a story from a picture book. The little girl read the story and pointed at the pictures “What’s that?” she’d ask. Sometimes ‘Big Nana’ knew, and sometimes she didn’t. When she didn’t, the little girl would proudly tell her about the picture. Their glowing faces, smiles and giggles were a beautiful affirmation of an unconditional, heartfelt connection, brought about by a humble picture book.
As well as reading books with dementia affected relatives, there are a growing number of picture books about families dealing with dementia, which may help children understand why a beloved relative has changed. This month I’ve collaborated with a wonderful group of Australian children's picture book authors and illustrators who have created stories to provide encouragement and hope to families.
Each unique and beautifully illustrated story is based on personal experience and offers practical strategies to connect and share love with elderly grandparents even in difficult, changing, and confusing circumstances.
The power of memory and remembering as a way to sustain a loving connection is a common thread. In Celia and Nonna by Victoria Lane and Kayleen West, Celia brings memories of happy times spent together with her grandmother into Nonna’s new aged care home by making pictures and paintings to fill the walls, and the grandchild mouse in Do You Remember by Kelly O'Gara and Anna McNeil uses artwork to honour Grandma’s memories.
In When I See Grandma by Debra Tidball and Leigh Hedstrom, Grandma’s memories are brought to life through her dreams as the granddaughter shares with her everyday things she enjoys doing and in Harry Helps Grandpa Remember by Karen Tyrrell and Aaron Pocock, Harry shares coping skills to help his grandpa boost his memory and confidence.
In Lucas and Jack, Lucas’ encounter with elderly Jack reveals to him what Lucas can’t see on the surface – the rich past of each resident - and in so doing, gives Lucas the key to connecting with his Grandpop through inquiring about his childhood memories.
There are of course many other lovely books in the same vein. I may be biased (of course I am!) but I believe picture books can change the world. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to see every library and every bookshop with a list of these types of books for people to access? What a great step towards creating awareness around dementia as well as offering strategies for managing this journey in the most supportive way for all concerned .In 2015, “Let’s make this a Dementia Friendly Nation.”
Ellie Royce has been telling stories her whole life. This resulted in some problems in her early days, notably at age five when she told her grandmother she had flown around the world on a broom and at age seven when she kept her classmates enthralled with the ‘true’ stories of her double life as a secret agent. Eventually Ellie learned to use her powers for good instead of evil and the result is a passion for writing books and sharing stories of all kinds.
After seven years writing freelance articles and the publication of a non-fiction book Ellie began to pursue her main love- writing fiction for children and young adults. She is the author of two middle grade books Amy’s Secret and Passion for Fashion and one picture book Lucas and Jack illustrated by Andrew McLean. Nowadays Ellie writes whenever she has a spare minute (and quite often when she should be doing other things!)
Ellie lives in Northern NSW with a little dog, a big dog, a second hand cat and her human family. Visit Ellie's website for more information about her books and writing projects.