Stirred by her personal experience with her mother’s dementia, Author and Illustrator Kathryn Harrisons created the picture book Weeds in Nana’s Garden to support families and spread awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
In this blog post, she tells us 10 things her kids and their Nana did together, and how this inspired her book on dementia.
My children were young when we received the diagnosis of my mom’s dementia. I knew then that they would have a different kind of relationship with their Nana than other kids.
But I didn’t expect the benefits they both would bring each other. In fact, I found that my small children and my mother had many things in common and were able to enjoy each other’s company more freely than in other relationships.
After the diagnosis…
The dementia diagnosis seemed to grant us access to another side of my mom – liberated! She developed new, more spontaneous and active qualities that my children embraced.
My kids didn’t judge whether their grandmother’s behaviour was “normal” for an adult or not. They just joined right in! And their energy was contagious.
Ideas for your family…
Although everyone’s experience with dementia is as individual and unique as the person, perhaps these shared activities might spark ideas for other families to try together. Here are our top 10:
1 – Sing – My mom remembered the nursery rhymes and songs that often played from my kid’s toys. How they all enjoyed loudly singing these familiar tunes over and over!
2 – Dance – Neither my kids nor my mother worried about whether dancing in the grocery store was “appropriate”. If music played that my mom liked, she danced. And if my kids were with her, they danced too.
3 – Blow bubbles – Like most small children, my son and daughter would squeal with delight and chase bubbles around. I was surprised to discover that their Nana also smiled joyfully when we blew bubbles and was very engaged in trying to catch them, even in the latter stages of the disease.
4 – Colouring –Quite by accident, we learned that my mother liked to colour. My daughter was using pencil crayons at the kitchen table one day. My mom quietly sat down beside her and started to intently colour too. It quickly became apparent that this was an activity my mom really enjoyed! Over the next few years, she filled dozens of colouring books, often with her grandchildren by her side.
5 – Decorate – Christmas trees, ginger-bread houses, Easter eggs and cookies. They weren’t really worthy of a home decorating magazine but when my kids and my mom decorated things together, they always had great fun! Candy was usually flying and there was no holding back on the icing or sprinkles!
6 – Play with clay – As my mom’s verbal abilities became less and less, we used to give her a big ball of clay to knead and push. Of course, my kids wanted to try it too, joining in the squishy mess! Nobody was worried about what they were “making”. It was all about playing with the cool, wet blob!
7 – Read picture books – In the early stages, my mom still read to my children. Especially if they were books she knew well. And then later, my children would “read” to my mom. Sometimes it was just looking at the pictures but it was always something done sitting side by side. Later in the experience, she really enjoyed “Touch & Feel” books so I custom-made her one with some of her favorite poems.
8 – Look at photos – It started with my mom reminiscing and telling stories by flipping through photo albums. The activity continued with my kid’s showing Nana pictures as a means of talking to her about their lives, especially when she became less vocal. We usually printed out some new photos whenever we were going for a visit.
9 – Go for walks – Walking outside, even if it was just around the block, was an adventure that my kids shared again and again with their Nana. As the dementia progressed, they moved from walking beside her to pushing her wheelchair. It was sometimes very quiet but it was always done with care and a spring in their step!
10 – Pick flowers – With all these walks came a chance to interact with nature. Starting with a day in my mother’s garden where my mom began picking and tossing an abundance of flowers into the air.
That day, my kids learned the happiness that comes from turning unexpected behaviour into laughter and joy. Picking flowers became a “must do” activity together. These bouquets of various flowers and plants (and weeds) always sat proudly on my mom’s bedside table.
Where this lead me…
And this last activity inspired much of the illustrated children’s book on dementia I created, Weeds in Nana’s Garden.
Using a loving story within the context of a magical garden, the picture book aims to explain dementia diseases in an easy and engaging way to support families.
For more information about Kathryn and her book, click here.
Dementia can free us to better enjoy surprises and not always worry about controlling the situation. I cherish that my mom experienced this freedom of expression and that my kids were beside her to both encourage and support the unique journey.
Although your experience with dementia will differ substantially from ours, I hope that both my book and sharing our story will prove helpful for your days ahead!