Picture Books and Dementia

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.

Jen­ny in cos­tume for an activ­i­ty at work where she used the chil­dren’s book Rosie the Riv­et­er by Pen­ny Col­man, and had a dis­cus­sion about WWII,

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


1. http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~kbrabazo/Eval-repository/Repository-Articles/reprints%20japan%20program.pdf

2. http://www.alz.org/facts/overview.asp

3. http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/53_appendix1.pdf

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8 years ago

I loved this arti­cle. I think this would also ben­e­fit stroke patients in the ear­ly stages of recov­ery. Plus, it would be fun to revis­it the stories.

Jenny Barlow
Jenny Barlow
Reply to  slowsly
8 years ago

Great idea about work­ing with stroke patients, good pic­tures books are infused with humor and heart which are heal­ing by nature, too. Thank you!

David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
8 years ago

What a bril­liant idea. I hope this prac­tice will spread. It can be dif­fi­cult to know what to say to a per­son with demen­tia, and shar­ing a pic­ture book is a great way for a care­giv­er or rel­a­tive to make that connection.

Jenny Barlow
Jenny Barlow
Reply to  David LaRochelle
8 years ago

Yes! Sell­ing more pic­ture books is good for authors and hav­ing more books to read is good for the peo­ple with demen­tia and their loved ones. 

There is a beau­ty in the adult child being able to return the time and love to their par­ent by read­ing the same books back to them. Also, when we lose some­one we love, we often real­ly miss hear­ing their voice. Fam­i­ly mem­bers need to real­ize that sim­ply being present and giv­ing their voice through read­ing aloud to their parent/grandparent is hon­est­ly a gift, per­haps the best one.

Ruth Hovland
Ruth Hovland
7 years ago

I have been intrigued with this idea since I first heard you speak on the top­ic last May 2016. I have been shar­ing sto­ries with my dad since then. My lat­est favorite is Crow Call by Lois Lowry. It has helped bridge a gap of dis­con­nect that actu­al­ly was present before my dad’s demen­tia struck. Cre­at­ing a focus that is more hon­or­ing of both of us. The pic­tures along with the sim­ple text is some­thing he can step into with lit­tle dif­fi­cul­ty. Hop­ing this idea con­tin­ues being push­ing for­ward. Thank­ful that the idea crossed my path at the time it did.