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Grandma Forgets: How do you cope while watching your loved ones slip away?

When Paul was a child, he watched his Nanna Russell slowly slip away, taken by the unforgiving grip of dementia.

Prior to World War II, Gladys Russell owned a thriving millinery shop making hats for Sydney’s finest. After enlisting and serving at Fort Scratchley in Newcastle, she married and started a family of her own.

These family stories and memories so many of us treasure were all but lost when Gladys was diagnosed with dementia, robbing her family of her first hand accounts of her youth and life before the war.

(Image: Supplied)

When Gladys passed away in 2007 after a long-fought battle with the illness affecting over 400,000 Australians each year, Paul decided to write down his own childhood accounts of his grandmother, which became the first draft of his children's book and dementia resource, Grandma Forgets.

"I wrote the book from my own perspective as the child about the stories I remember of my grandmother," he told Mamamia.

Grandma Forgets tells the story of a family bound by love as they cope with their grandma’s dementia. Over the years, the little girl has built up a treasure trove of memories of time spent with Grandma: sausages for Sunday lunch, driving in her sky-blue car to the beach, climbing her apple trees while she baked a delicious apple pie, and her comforting hugs during wild storms.

But now, Grandma can’t remember those memories.

Written from Paul's perspective as a child having watched his grandma's decline, as well as a teacher and father to his own children, at the heart of Grandma Forgets is the message that while grandma might not remember any names, she will always know how much she is loved.

Paul with his grandmother, Gladys on his wedding day. (Image: Supplied)
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Looking back, Paul credits his family's strength through Gladys' illness to his father, who made sure his children were able to make happy memories with their grandma.

"I've come full circle and see my children as the children and myself as the father figure and see how much it effects everyone," he said.

"I wrote the story for my dad as a sort of thank you. Through her battle with this terrible illness we were always allowed to still just be grandchildren, he took on do much of the stress and sadness so we could still just love our grandmother."

Paul's advice to parents facing the challenge of explaining dementia to their young children is to never be afraid to be honest and lay it out in the open.

LISTEN: Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo dissect what parents are talking about on this week's episode of This Glorious Mess (post continues after audio...)

"I think children are so much better at coping with things than adults give them credit for. In the book, the little girl comes to the realisation that it is okay that grandma forgets because that means she can tell her she loves her more often," he explained.

"It is an insight that adults often miss because it is just so painful to watch someone forgetting everything but it is also important to still relish the good days as it helps you through the bad ones.

"Children are very perceptive and it is too big a thing to hide from them. I think this was why it was important that Grandma Forgets wasn't sad. Sure, it is about a sad thing but through the child's eyes there is still so much hope and love."

Grandma Forgets is a children's book written by teacher and father-of-two, Paul Russell and illustrated by Nicky Johnston, an educator, speaker and author/illustrator. You can buy your copy for $24.99 here.

For more information about Dementia and Alzheimer's, please visit Alzheimer's Australia.

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