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’Sometimes Grandma Calls Me Jean’: Local writer pens children’s book about dementia


Local author Jill Pietroburgo has written a children's book about dementia, "Sometimes Grandma Calls Me Jean," inspired after the 2019 diagnosis of her mother Bonnie Sullivant. Pietroburgo penned the book, she said, with the hope she could help explain the disease to children with family members who have been diagnosed with dementia.

She moved with her parents, Norval and Bonnie, to West Plains from Oklahoma when she was 6, and the couple had Sullivant's Shoes on the square until the early 1980s.

From 1996 to 2009, Pietroburgo, her husband Phil and their children lived in St. Louis. She then moved back to West Plains, bringing her family with her, to be near her aging parents and help care for them.

A new, small house was built on the Sullivants’ property for the older couple to live in, and Jill and her husband and children moved into the larger home already on the property.

Bonnie began exhibiting symptoms of memory loss as early as 2014, but Norval had serious health issues of his own that needed attention. He died of congestive heart failure that year, and Pietroburgo noticed her mother became depressed and increasingly isolated from her friendships.

While still living nearby in their own home, the Pietroburgos saw Bonnie's decline eventually manifest in hallucinations and frequent attempts to leave the property. Pietroburgo recalled her mother packing a suitcase and trying to leave on foot, while insisting she was meeting a man she was going to marry.

Realizing Bonnie was becoming a danger to herself, the family arranged in-home care for her and made sure she was supervised by caregivers or friends any time the family had work or activities that kept them away from home, day or night.

She was admitted into a geriatric psychiatric hospital in 2019 and diagnosed with dementia, and now lives at Brooke Haven Healthcare, a skilled nursing facility in West Plains.

Pietroburgo has a master’s of science in education and is an early childhood special education teacher in the West Plains R-7 School District. Through her career, she has worked with all ages of people with mental illness and neurological disorders like autism.

"I've always had a heart for helping," she says. She worked on the book as a way to help cope with Bonnie's diagnosis, and her motivation was to help children understand what is happening when a person living with demetia begins to show strange symptoms and behaviors.

The book is written for kids from ages 3 to 8, and includes a visual aid to help children name and talk about the emotions they might be feeling when experiencing their loved one's condition.

The idea was important to Pietroburgo as both a story and a resource. She hopes both help families with coping skills and to encourage compassion and involvement in the lives of those diagnosed with dementia and other types of memory disorders like Alzheimer's.

She worked on the book for a couple of years and shopped around for the perfect illustrator, and found one in Heidi Jean, a Canadian artist. "As soon as I saw, I knew it was a perfect union," she says.

To help further the understanding of dementia, Pietroburgo will participate in an upcoming Dementia Resource Event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church, 202 Walnut St. in West Plains. There will be legal and medical experts on hand to speak about elder law, treatment and support services, plus informational materials, food trucks, and giveaways.

Pietroburgo will also have her book at the Downtown Fall Block Party, from 4 to 9 p.m. Oct. 14 on Court Square in West Plains, and the Mistletoe Market at Pine Meadows Venue, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 11, 1449 Highway 76, in Willow Springs.