by Jenny Barlow
We could reach her through nursery rhymes.
She regularly sat in the living room, wrapped in a blanket in her wheelchair. To people who don’t understand, she would seem withered, vacant, even loose in the joints, and maybe very shabby. But we stroked her palsied hands and gently called her name. On occasion, she’d open her eyes.
“Hickory dickory,” we’d start.
Often fast, like an auctioneer, she’d respond, “DOCK! The mouse ran up the clock, the sheep’s in the meadow the cow’s in the corn, hickory dickory dock!”
Ok, so she wasn’t perfect…but she deserved points for keeping within the nursery rhyme genre. Dementia visits people differently, but commonly the memories it spares are ones from childhood. Someone, likely this woman’s mother, 90 some years ago, before WWI, before women’s suffrage, before radio, took the time to sit with this now-wrinkled woman as a then-chubby-faced baby and sing her nursery rhymes.
Nearly a century later, we were blessed to enjoy the echoes of that love between parent and child.
We must not limit ourselves. People of all ages and situations love picture books for different reasons. Kunio Yanagida’s picture book was cited in The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships to express why this is true:
There is a Japanese saying that one should read a picture book at three different times through one’s life: at first, in childhood; second, during the period of rearing children, and third, in later life. Older people are thought to be particularly impressed and feel sympathy when reading picture books because of their rich life experiences.1
Viral videos show how people momentarily awaken hibernating personalities by hearing just the right song. They use the scaffolding of the music to sing words they can’t say on their own in a sentence, yet their expressions suggest they very much know the context. The same can be true with reading.
It is now universally accepted that music should be used daily to empower the lives of those with dementia. It is time for reading, independently or in a group, to become revered in a parallel light. Reflecting back on how the woman remembered nursery rhymes, the leap in logic with children’s stories becoming senior’s stories isn’t so outlandish.
The modern day world of children’s literature is vast, with classics like Peter Pan or The Velveteen Rabbit to sophisticated non-fiction about historical moments this older generation created. Well-written stories stay with us, change us into better human beings, and make our own hearts wiser. C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
The words on the page, the illustrations woven with the storyline, the length, the page turns, the weight of the book itself: all of these aspects support an intergenerational market. Precocious picture books work especially well as seniors, even those with advanced dementia, usually retain much of their vocabulary.
The form and format of picture books are also effective for engaging these readers. Although we see older folks sitting with their cup of black coffee and morning paper, the font size of newsprint can be hard to decipher, the busyness of the ads mixed with blocks of different articles can be confusing, and, due to attention difficulties caused by disease and stress, the length of news stories, let alone novels, can be overwhelming. The design and length of picture books, on the other hand, welcomes these same readers.
The Alzheimer’s Association reports there are currently over five million people in the United States with this type of dementia, and that number may triple in the next 35 years.2 The percentage of the U.S. population made of children ages 12 and younger will dip in that same time period.3 The business of writing picture books and placing them with the perfect reader can, and should, grow up.
There is a blue ocean of under-served and underestimated people, broken-in-body children-at-heart, who need us. Picture books can help families express love to those they thought they had lost. We already have the power, we just need the reframing mindset. It’s simple, really; we can even reach them through nursery rhymes.
Long live “children’s” literature.
Note from the Bookologist: Jenny suggests these picture books to begin with:
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
The Name Quilt by Phyllis Root, illus. by Margot Apple
The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L.Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull, illus. Kevin Hawkes
A Nation’s Hope: the Story of Boxing Legend Joe Lewis by Matt De La Pena, illus. Kadir Nelson
Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall, illus. Steve Johnson