Teen Creates Book to Bring Grandmother with Dementia Joy as Her Functions Fade Away


For years, modern medicine has encouraged working puzzles to keep the brain sharp and ward off the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  But what can be done once the mind’s faculties have already begun to slip?

The notion behind regular puzzle solving’s benefit is that a stimulated brain is not a forgetful one. Once the brain has already begun to deteriorate, however, tasks such as locating a specified sequence of characters hidden among strategic letter patterns surpasses the ability of many.

After Mary Frates’ husband died, she moved in with her family in Needham, Massachusetts. There, frequent word searches became a beloved distraction.

But time passed and Mary, in her 80s, began to struggle with the difficulty and font size of the searches. The family also began to notice a decline in her cognitive functions. Mary was going through the early phases of dementia, a general diagnosis for a class of conditions that impact cognitive function — especially memory — enough to interfere with basic daily life.

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Her grandson, John Frates, 17, noticed that his grandmother struggled to complete the word search puzzles he knew she loved. She did them less as her condition progressed.

In a love-fueled stroke of genius, John came up with the idea of making simpler word searches. Sticking to simplified word lists between 6-10 words and eliminating backwards and diagonal words, he created puzzles in everyday categories such as weather and animals.

When John brought the modified puzzles to Falls at Cordingly Dam nursing home where Mary now lives, her excitement and appreciation was unmistakable. “She was ecstatic, it made her day every time I gave her a new one. Honestly, the reason I did it was because of her reaction,” John told Needham’s Wicked Local. “It’s really exciting.”

Encouraged by this response, John shared the puzzles with other residents of the nursing home, where they were equally well-received. This motivated him to conduct his own study on the positive benefits of the puzzles on dementia patients.

Remarkably, he was invited to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s 2017 conference in October to present his study and findings. Born as a passion project, John was surprised by the interest shown by the medical health and wellness professional communities.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so shocked. The current market for modified word searches include puzzles intended for children and those with large font to assist with poor eyesight.

“Everyone was shocked by the complexity of word search books currently marketed with ‘larger fonts’ against the simplistic approach I took to make the game more enjoyable,” John told the Good News Network. Often, the best solutions are the simplest and easily get overlooked.

In actuality, he has tapped into a previously undiscovered market. Proud of her grandson’s accomplishment, Mary encouraged John to get the puzzles published.

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Mary’s memory care team at Benchmark Senior Living along with John’s school headmaster at Roxbury Latin, Kerry Brennan, were behind the project all the way. Both were critical in streamlining the process of getting his word search book “Grandma and Grandpa’s Word Searches” published for public use.

“When I showed her the book, she was really excited because she was the one who originally suggested that I publish it so that other people could enjoy it, too,” John explained. “Watching the seniors succeed with my book and engage in conversation about the subject matter showed me the effect it can have on countless others, not just my grandmother.”

The social engagement between the seniors is very important, particularly for those with dementia as the stimulation exercises the brain. Aside from memory health, social engagement between residential seniors boots feelings of happiness, builds a sense of community, and wards off feelings of isolation and depression.

The book, which features 27 of the 50 total puzzles he has made, is available on Amazon and sold 900 copies in its first month — much to the teen’s initial surprise. All proceeds are earmarked toward Alzheimer’s research and helping those living with all forms of dementia.

The book’s introduction starts, “While it may seem this book is about word searches, it really is about a young man’s love for his grandmother and his clever, persistent commitment to ensuring that she have as much joy in her life as possible.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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