Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa
This column on parenting skills was written by someone who has never been a parent: me. But I learned a lot about children during my years as a teacher.
On Oct. 20, Kent Karosen, president and CEO of the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, and I will give the keynote addresses to open the 2017 Brookdale National Respite and RAPP Training Conference in Denver, Colo. Why keynote addresses by the two of us? Because both of us wrote children’s books dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.
Karosen’s book, “Why Can’t Grandma Remember My Name?” is presented with a child’s question on one page and an adult’s answer on the opposite page. The children’s pages are illustrated by artists who are ages 4-12. The adult pages are illustrated by artists age 65 and over from the Scripps Gerontology Center.
What impressed me most about Karosen’s book is the instant relationship that is established between child and adult on the first two pages. Each question is answered in a straightforward manner with facts and assurance. The child is thus treated with respect and dignity.
How often have we brushed off children’s concerns about Grandma’s new behavior of not remembering our names by simply saying, “Nothing to worry about. She’s just getting old.”
When a child asks a question, he or she is worried, puzzled and even afraid. To discount both the child and the question can be the beginning of a relationship in which a child feels helpless. It is this kind of relationship that may lead to our children’s reluctance to communicate with us in the future regarding bullying, sexual awareness and/or abuse and other issues — all because of what they have learned from us. It is no wonder they don’t talk to us.
The significance of the adult as a positive role model begins on the first two pages of Karosen’s book:
Child’s question: “. . . Grandma couldn’t find her keys. I found them in the freezer. Yesterday, Grandma could not remember my name. That made me very sad. Grandma doesn’t seem like Grandma anymore. Is she okay?”
Adult’s responses: “Many older people forget things from time to time. That is a normal part of aging. But, sometimes, memory loss can be more serious. Grandma visited her doctor and had tests done. The doctor found out that Grandma has an illness called Alzheimer’s disease . . .”
The book follows this format.
Interestingly, in Karosen’s book, the teaching comes from the adult. In my book, “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz,” it is Wordsworth the little mouse-poet who becomes the teacher. His grandma is isolated in her bedroom. Through one of his poems, he is able to change the family dynamics:
When Grandma hugged me
And said, “How’s my Wordsworth?”
When Grandma sent me presents
On special days of the year,
When Grandma gave me candy
Right before dinnertime,
When Grandma told me stories
Way past my bedtime,
She was Grandma to me
Because she was Grandma,
Not because she had a memory
Or because she knew my name.
Now that she’s losing her memory,
She’s still my Grandma, isn’t she?
From: “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz”
These two stories are a reminder that adults aren’t the only teachers, and that if we listen, our children are teachers as well and, oftentimes, wiser than we adults. I shared this story in one of my previous columns about two preschoolers, who, after reading my Wordsworth book, told their mother, “Why do you talk mean to Grandma?”
Now let’s turn to our teens. A grandmother who is her husband’s caregiver sent me the following. Her college-age grandson, Matt, lives with them when he is on college break.
She gave the following letter to her grandson this summer. I think it speaks for itself.
I have not been treating you as an adult. I should not be worrying you about the empty gas tank. If you need bread and I need bread for Grandpa, I should get you up earlier so you can pick up the bread. I should just let you fix your own dinner when I am too tired to cook and maybe ask you to fix something extra for us.
I should have sat down with you and your mom to see if your job at the Zoo was going to be practical without full use of the car. I really like having you with us and it is so good for your grandpa, but I must confess that it is stressful for me to be left with the dreaded bathmat wet on the floor, your clothes on chairs and on the floor in the living room and your bed unmade. Those are things a child would do or a rude houseguest.
Since you are neither, I want you to be more considerate of me. An adult would research out how to get the car bumper fixed after he damaged his grandma’s car. So let’s sit down and discuss how we can both get through the next 21 days smoothly. I am not sure you are off work this coming Thursday or the next, but we could check into a trip to Chez P. to see if we might get a reservation.
Kayaking could be a possibility after work. If we don’t do those special things, at least let’s both enjoy the rest of our time together.
I also might add that I am somewhat depressed. Caregiving is a full-time job and the daily afternoon sadness that comes to Grandpa wears me down. Physically, I am also worn down and don’t have the energy I had two years ago. I need your adult help and understanding.
Lots of love,
P.S. When I ask you to do something helpful, I would like it if you gave me a cheerful “Sure . . .” and not roll your eyes and say, “Oh my God . . .”
I checked with the grandmother and immediately after she posted this letter on his mirror, the living room was clean and Matt’s clothes were no longer spread all over the furniture and floor. The gas tank of her car was filled with gas and his bed was made. Matt now offers to make sandwiches for dinner. He won’t have that sit-down discussion with her, so I suggested that he be allowed to explore her letter by himself. I also advised her that sometimes we deprive our young people of the opportunity to experiment and resolve problems by themselves, so I’m glad this part of him is being honored.
No one said parenting was easy. But I have a strong hunch that his grandmother’s voice on how to be a houseguest will be with him for the rest of his life as he ventures out into the world. And, as Karosen notes in his book, it’s good to be honest with our children and young adults and not just cross our fingers and hope for age to bring about awareness and maturity.
Did you notice how the grandmother used the word “should” on herself, but not on her grandson? It reminded me of my teaching years, when words such as “should” and “ought to” were discouraged in the classroom because they tend to impose one’s values on another.
Writing her concerns also had more staying power. Had she spoken to her grandson, I’m almost certain there would have been less of an opportunity for Matt to reflect and to decide on changing his behavior quietly, with dignity, on his own terms. You know: in one ear, out the other. If he is anything like I was at his age, he would have said, “I know . . .” as I did to my mother with my “I know more than you” attitude. That used to drive her crazy.
Stay tuned for more book recommendations in next month’s column. I’ve read some good books.
And for you readers on the Big Island . . . Christine Reed from Basically Books is willing to order books for you. She also offers mailing services for people outside of Hilo. (Basically Books recently moved to 1672 Kamehameha Ave. in Hilo, about 1.5 miles from the old site.)
And, FYI to those interested in my fall schedule . . .
At the Oct. 20 and 21 conference in Denver, I will also present two workshops — one for caregivers and the second for grandparents and other family members who are raising grandchildren or nieces and/or nephews without their parents. The second workshop is in conjunction with a national organization called Relatives As Parents Program, or RAPP.
Sacramento residents: I’ll be speaking on caregiving at two conferences in our area in November, so please check my blog or Facebook page.
Frances Kakugawa was her mother’s primary caregiver during her five-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. A native of Kapoho on Hawai‘i island, she now lives in Sacramento. Frances has melded her professional training as a writer and educator and her personal caregiving experiences to write several books on caring for people with memory-related illnesses. She is a sought-after speaker, both in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland, sharing strategies for caregiving, as well as coping with the stresses of caregiving.