Understanding dementia is difficult, and maintaining relationships with affected loved ones can be challenging for all of us, especially children. To help kids develop stronger relationships with their loved ones who have dementia, Country Meadows Retirement Communities and its affiliate, Ecumenical Retirement Community, partnered with the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design (PCA&D) in Lancaster, to create a character for a children’s story and activity book.
“The Unforgettable Adventures of Grandma’s Cape,” was written by Country Meadows’ Executive Director of Memory Support, Joel Kroft. It weaves the story of a child and his/her relationship with Grandma, and how that relationship is changing because of her “forgetting disease.” Along the way readers have different activities to complete, all focusing on the topic of dementia/forgetfulness. As father to three young children, Kroft thought a story would help children connect to the information. He drew from his own experience with a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease as well as hundreds of other grandparents and families he has worked with at Country Meadows during the last 15 years.
“In some ways children are more accepting when their grandparent experiences dementia. But it can be confusing, in a child’s eyes, when an adult, who they typically look to for stability and guidance, isn’t providing that anymore,” explains Kroft. “They need help to make sense of that and to recognize that the person they love is still there.”
The story features an awesome, cape-wearing grandma who makes great chocolate chip cookies and has a zest for adventure. Kroft says the cape is a nod to the superhero quality of grandparents and their contributions to this world. Told from the grandchild’s point of view, the story reveals a sense of awe for grandma as well as what happens when she begins forgetting things. In addition to understanding the progression of the illness, the grandchild learns to use his/her own superhero powers to connect with grandma and continue showing her love.
Kroft tested the story with his children and received a positive response. Like many children’s stories, the narrative connects on multiple levels encouraging adults to think differently about making connections with their loved one with dementia, too.
“This is information people need to have. We can’t deny the sadness of what we do. I have seen families struggle and even stop visiting as the disease progresses because it can be uncomfortable and even scary. There’s a misconception that because the person with dementia doesn’t remember or recognize family members they won’t miss the visits, but this is when it’s important to stay connected,” says Kroft. “People with dementia need loving, caring people in their lives to make the world make a little more sense, and this story shows family members how to make that happen. It would be amazing if we can help even a couple of families with this book.”
To breathe life into the book’s characters, the Country Meadows team worked with Bob Hochgertel, Chairman and Associate Professor- Illustration and Design Department, PCA&D, to establish a contest for senior illustration students. Country Meadows memory care experts presented the workbook concept to the students during class to help them better understand the expectations. Weeks later, the group returned and selected the winning illustration from 23 entries.
“Working with outside parameters gives our students a good feel for meeting real deadlines and balancing the needs of a client with their own artistic vision. It was fantastic to see the lightbulbs go off as they heard about dementia and the story idea. The illustrations they presented were all very different in style and content from fun, almost ‘Dr. Seussian,’ to very realistic oil paintings,” says Hochgertel. “I saw students rise to the challenge and stretch themselves to meet the clients’ needs, and it was really a win-win-win for everyone involved, providing Country Meadows with a variety of solutions to choose from and bringing recognition to our school as well.”
The winning student illustrator is Gabby Hoffman, a senior illustration student. The “Grandma’s Cape” concept resonated with Hoffman who regards her grandparents as heroes, and has memories of a family member who had dementia. Her illustration, with grandma perched on the back of the couch as her grandchild looks on with awe, was selected from 23 submissions for the book’s cover
For Hoffman, the opportunity has given her confidence that she’s chosen the right career goal as a children’s book illustrator. In addition to the cover, her work also appears throughout the book and on activity pages. She is pleased that her school offers opportunities for real world experiences and that this work is in her portfolio as she begins her job search.
“I’m really proud that I could be part of this project,” she says. “I just hope that it is helpful and useful to show people how to reconnect with and treat someone with dementia with love and not let them slip away.”
Stop by any Country Meadows campus to pick up a free copy of “The Unforgettable Adventures of Grandma’s Cape” at the front desk or request a printed one to be mailed to you. Click here to find the location nearest you.