Book explains dementia for children

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published November 18, 2021

 “My Grandma is Different,” by Cristela Thorne Mitchell, of St. Clair Shores, helps young readers and their parents or guardians engage in difficult conversations about dementia.

“My Grandma is Different,” by Cristela Thorne Mitchell, of St. Clair Shores, helps young readers and their parents or guardians engage in difficult conversations about dementia.

Image provided by Cristela Thorne Mitchell

 Cristela Thorne Mitchell

Cristela Thorne Mitchell

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Why can’t grandma remember a name but she still remembers something that happened 80 years ago? Why is she suddenly putting things in the wrong spot and can’t find the right words to finish a conversation?

When a family member begins to exhibit or is diagnosed with dementia, children may become confused by their loved one’s sudden change in personality. With their parents often taking on new roles as caretakers, explanations may get lost in the shuffle.

As a behavioral mental health clinician, Cristela Thorne Mitchell said she sees parents and families come in that are part of the “sandwich generation,” raising children and dealing with aging parents at the same time.

“Very often ... they don’t share exactly what’s going on with the kids,” said Mitchell, of St. Clair Shores, who has a doctorate in psychology. “It’s a way of protecting them, I believe, but those kids are curious.”

She experienced this in her own life, as well. Her mother was diagnosed with vascular dementia when her daughter was 9 years old.

“They wanted to know why grandma is acting differently, why grandma doesn’t remember me. They deal with it differently,” she said.

Mitchell said, previously, her mother was very involved in her daughter’s life and would attend piano and ballet recitals even though she lived out of town.

“Then, all of a sudden, grandma and grandpa weren’t able to come. She wanted to know why,” Mitchell said. “She was at the age (when) she was able to understand, but she also asked questions and was very curious.”

That inspired Mitchell to write a children’s story, published in both her native Spanish and English, “My Grandma is Different” (“Mi Abuela es Diferente”). The illustrated book helps young readers and their parents or guardians engage in difficult conversations about dementia.

“Transparency is very important,” she said. “It’s obvious if you don’t tell them, eventually they’re going to see (what’s happening). It helps them to have a little more compassion as opposed to being impatient and having the expectation that adults are supposed to be the ones who have all the answers.”

The book guides readers through engaging with elderly adults who have dementia. Without a little background information about what is happening in the brain of someone with dementia, “if grandma is talking about something way back (in the past) she didn’t even know about, you’re going to think that she’s crazy.”

Although the Spanish edition was published in May 2021 and the English version in July, the book has been a long time in the making. It’s been about a decade since Mitchell’s mother, now 92 years old, was diagnosed. Mitchell journaled her experiences throughout that time and reviewed those experiences as she wrote the book.

“I’ve had it on the shelf for a long time,” she said.

In “My Grandma is Different,” the character of Sweetie Pie is feeling confused and wondering what is going on with her grandmother, who was putting things away in places she normally did not and had a strange look on her face. Her father tells her that, when people get older, they forget, but her mother clarifies what is going on, explaining what dementia is and what the disease does in an easy-to-understand format for the child. The picture book is aimed at those in elementary and early middle school.

The book is illustrated by De’Linlee Artella Rouse.

“She is a friend of my brother in Georgia,” Mitchell said. “I gave her the script of what I was looking for, (and) she did an excellent job.”

Mitchell said that, as an Afro-Latina, it was important to her that both of her cultures were represented in the book.

“I’m Spanish speaking, that’s my first language, but I’m also Black,” she said. “I wanted the picture to be a combination of that.”

Mitchell was born in Panama and came to the United States in the sixth grade. She lived in New York and has now lived in St. Clair Shores for the past 25 years.

“We continue our language, Spanish speaking. All of us are fluent in English, but (Spanish) — that’s part of our culture,” she explained.

“My Grandma is Different” and “Mi Abuela es Diferente” are available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble and through Dorrance Publishing at www.dorrancebookstore.com.

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