Oma’s Bag by Michelle Wang heartens families grappling with dementia

The touching story offers an empathetic approach to talking about Alzheimer’s disease with children

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A book cover with an illustration of a child rummaging through a pink bag that holds stuffed animals.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer

Content Warning: mentions of end-of-life illnesses.

Michelle Wang’s newest childrens’ book out in March, Oma’s Bag demonstrates that love and laughter can make a huge difference in coping with a loved one’s difficult diagnosis. This child-appropriate and approachable picture book follows a family coping with their grandmother’s dementia. Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses are difficult to cope with, and lost memories can make communication difficult and ultimately, cause grief.

The story follows five siblings (and their adorable dog) after their grandmother moves in with them. They are puzzled when things around the house start to go missing, until they find them all tucked away in Oma’s bag. Through the children’s eyes, we learn these objects have some sort of significance to their Oma. Instead of being afraid, the children use this as an opportunity to learn more about their Oma and spend more time with her doing the activities she loves.

Oma’s Bag was inspired by Wang’s mother-in-law who came to live with her family after being diagnosed with dementia. They noticed things were starting to go missing around the house, from eyeglasses to soap dispensers. When they discovered the items in Oma’s bag every night, she would share stories “which brought back so many beautiful memories” leading the family to “make wonderful new ones.”

“Even though it was difficult and heartbreaking, we were able to turn it into an experience full of love and laughter. It is this lightness and joy through our tears that I tried to get across in Oma’s Bag,” Wang told The Peak. 

Wang is an elementary school teacher from Toronto. “There isn’t a book I can walk past without picking up to read cover to cover, and I can’t help seeing a picture book story in every random event or moment I encounter,” Wang shared. Because of this, she was always encouraged by her mother to write a book of her own.

Having already released a series of children’s books, Wang felt she was in a unique position to tell her family’s story. Oma’s Bag is “a present” to her husband and children, turning a difficult experience into one “full of love and laughter.” The vibrant illustrations by Ontario-based artist Sam Nunez bring Wang’s story to life, reminding us that joy can be found even under difficult circumstances.

My great-grandmother was in her mid-80s when she was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, I was around eight years old. Even at a young age I recognized how difficult it was for my mom and grandmother, who became her primary caregivers. Wang told The Peak how her father-in-law felt his wife was “slipping away.” This is exactly how my family felt about great-grandma as we watched the disease change her. To connect with her, we would bring her some of her favourite foods, play Italian music, and do her hair. 

Oma’s Bag recognizes that despite the fact our loved ones change, they are still “completely with us in the present.” Wang emphasizes that everyday interactions make a big difference when connecting with our loved ones with dementia, helping to “keep old connections and even make new ones.” Wang writes, “I hope that families reading Oma’s Bag will be able to see themselves in these pages.”

The book also includes a collection of resources for talking about Alzheimer’s and dementia with children. You can pre-order the book online now, or get it in the spring at your local bookshop. I will definitely be purchasing the physical copy of this book to have on my shelf and share with my children one day!

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