Imagine being ten years old and on vacation with your family in Hawaii. Paradise, right? Well, at least until your great-grandmother tells a security guard your family is trying to kill her — and you find yourself up close and personal with the local police!
One might say that’s not a typical vacation, but then Max Wallack wasn’t a typical kid. By age 10, he was a seasoned caregiver, helping to care for his “Great Grams,” who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Now, at age 17, he’s using his experience to help other children understand the disease.
Max’s new book, Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? draws heavily from real life events. When asked about his earliest memories of realizing something was wrong, he describes being six years old and riding in the back seat of the car with his great-grandmother.
“In the front, my mom was talking to my grandmother. Great Grams became VERY hostile and said they were telling secrets about her,” recalls Max.
As an adult who has witnessed bouts of paranoia in Alzheimer’s patients (including my mother), I can only imagine how frightening it might be to such a young child. The thought really underscores the need for a book like this.
A poignant look at dementia as told through the eyes of a 7-year-old, the book begins with Julie’s first recollections her grandma’s illness. The story progresses from there, touching on everything from wandering and incontinence to how Julie reacted when her grandmother forgot her name.
In one scene, the little girl worries about the possibility of “catching” Alzheimer’s, prompting her mother explain the disease in beautifully concise age-appropriate terms. She uses a sports analogy to illustrate how grandma’s brain can’t “throw and catch” messages the way a healthy brain does. That one sentence creates a clear, non-threatening mental imagine of precisely what’s happening.
Brightly colored illustrations complementing the story fill each page, as Julie shares her innermost feelings — from fear, confusion, and anger, to disappointment, guilt, and sadness. Through her words, the reader realizes it’s okay to feel a vast array of emotions when presented with such a challenging situation.
Though at times gut wrenching for adult readers, I think everyone will agree that the common theme throughout the book is very simple — unconditional love. Alzheimer’s doesn’t diminish the profound love Julie feels for the woman who has had such a strong presence in her life. While the disease may transform their relationship, the genuine affection they feel for each other continues to deepen.
When he decided to write the book, Max enlisted the help of co-author Carolyn Given. The neuroscience major, currently in his junior year at Boston University, said he knew Given “would keep the book light, with a feeling of optimism.” He sent her the manuscript, and the rest is history.
The Alzheimer’s community is fortunate to have an advocate like Max, who also founded PuzzlesToRemember, in our corner. He cites the closeness he shared with his great-grandmother as well as his parents’ open communication as key factors in developing such passion at a very early age.
As a researcher in the Molecular Psychiatry in Aging Laboratory at BU’s School of Medicine, Max is hopeful about progress being made toward preventing and/or treating the disease. As an author, he is making a world of difference to the increasing number of children whose lives are touched by Alzheimer’s each day. Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? is a book we should all have in our collections. I can’t imagine there being an adult or child on earth that couldn’t take something positive from this lovely story.
If you haven’t read the book yet, you can find it in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Fifty percent of the proceeds go toward supporting Alzheimer’s care and research. Give it a read and let us know what you think!