Oma’s Bag is a beautiful and touching story geared towards helping children navigate an Alzheimer’s diagnosis of a loved one and learn how to embrace it. Children’s book author and school teacher Michelle Wang, has a gentle and loving approach to help families with young children.

In this story, the five Lim children – Jessica, Jocelyn, Jeffrey, Jacob, and Kenzie – are thrilled when their parents tell them that Oma and Opa, their beloved grandparents, are coming to town for a visit. But this time, things seem different – grandmother Oma’s cooking doesn’t taste the same, and she’s started asking the same questions over and over, even while talking about specific moments from her past. Then things around the house begin to go missing: keys, eyeglasses, the TV remote. When the items turn up in the oversized shopping bag that Oma carries around with her, the family comes to the sad realization that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But the journey from the past to new shared experiences reminds the family that Oma is still Oma. And as Jeffrey watches his cherished grandmother dance about the house, he reassures his grandfather, “She’s still here.”Accompanied by joyful illustrations, Oma’s Bag is a tender and touching book to help children navigate an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in their family and learn how to fully embrace their loved ones in new and unexpected ways. Suitable for ages 3 to 8.Oma's Bag

We had a chance to chat with Michelle about her new children’s book and her own experience with Alzheimer’s…

Kids are generally inquisitive, as an educator and parent, how did you explain what Oma was going through?
Michelle: I find that children are more resilient and adaptable to change than adults. Because everything is new or the first time for them, they are much more accepting of ever evolving circumstances. Oma asks the same questions over and over again?  She likes to wear three jackets one on top of the other?  Okay, I guess that’s just what Oma does now.  And then they happily roll with it.
We have always been extremely open and transparent with our children: mostly because they are so observant, hear everything, and nothing gets past them anyways. They usually discover new things on their own so we didn’t really feel the need to pre-emptively explain things to them. If they had questions, we tried to keep our answers and explanations simple, straightforward, and honest.
For young children it may seem confusing when a family member shows signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, what kind of resources help your family? 
Michelle: We received professional support from doctors, but to be perfectly honest, our family pretty much did things by trial and error. We just went with what felt right at the time. For example, in preparation for the grandparents’ latest visit, we told the children that even though they knew better than to walk into the mine field that is our laundry room, Oma might not. My husband decided to make signs like “DANGER: DO NOT ENTER” and “STOP! WE WILL HELP YOU DOWNSTAIRS” which the kids loved printing and taping onto doors. When my sister, who is an Occupational Therapist, came over and saw the signs, she thought it was a great idea and what she would recommend for her own patients.
While researching for this book, I also came across some resources including general information about dementia to help parents start a conversation with their children as well as a list of ideas for how to help someone with dementia. I shared these in the back pages of Oma’s Bag. The overwhelmingly positive response from the geriatricians who have read our story is both a heartening and humbling validation. That Oma’s Bag itself could be a resource for other families might be the highest praise of all.
 
In the story, you’ve included some wonderful ways children can continue to have quality time  together and sharing in stories of objects found in Oma’s Bag. Were there any particular inspiration for this?
Michelle: The book was actually wholly inspired by my family – both the characters in the story and the experiences are our real life. When my mother-in-law came to live with us, things really did start disappearing around the house. But because we live in a generally messy house, it took us a while to realize this was happening. Eventually, though, one of the kids noticed something spilling out of the oversized bright pink reusable shopping bag that Oma always carried around with her. It might have been the TV remote or the cordless phone to our landline, to which Oma exclaimed, “how did THAT get in there?” A good laugh was shared before they eagerly deep dove into the rest of the bag. As each item was discovered, more family members drifted over to see what was going on: a tape dispenser, glasses (not hers), a wall calendar, and a singular clementine with a toothpick stuck in it. Every object had a story behind it. The piece de resistance was a an empty toilet paper roll carefully wrapped in Kleenex with a photo of my husband when he was five years old rolled up inside. By the end of it, we were all gathered around the pool table that doubles as our dining room table laughing till our insides hurt. This scene played out countless times over the course of her visit and became our favourite time of day, because, well, there were always “oh, so many things!” and even more stories to be shared.
 
What would you say is important for parents to keep in mind while going through this life experience with children?
Michelle: I think that this life experience is infinitely more difficult for adults than children. We have known the loved one for longer and can remember the person as they were before. We also have the foresight of what’s to come with its inevitable sadness and worry. Children, though, live much more in the moment and are able to accept people for how they are now. It’s important that we as adults don’t project our own grief and anxiety of the situation on our children. In fact, one of the things I tried to show in the book was how Opa eventually saw through his grandchildren that Oma was still completely with us in the present. She might not have seemed exactly like the person we knew before, but this version of her was very much alive and capable of participating in life and interacting with us. Instead of focussing on the sadness and loss, choose to embrace what you still have and cherish the new memories you are still making.

For more information visit the publisher’s site here.

author Michelle Wang

Michelle Wang is an elementary school teacher who was inspired to write Oma’s Bag by her own mother-in-law and for all families who have loved ones living with dementia. She lives in Toronto.