Q&A with Lydia Burdick, author of ‘The Sunshine on My Face’

10 years ago you wrote the first book in the Two-Lap® Series, The Sunshine on My Face. How did you develop the idea for such a unique book?

My mother had mid- to late-stage dementia, and I was feeling frustrated during my visits with her. She would basically sit in the den, have something to eat and drink, and watch TV. Mom wasn’t speaking or smiling. We were definitely not doing anything together that brought happiness to either one of us during our visits. One visit, I casually gave my mother a magazine to look at. I wondered how exactly she was using that magazine. Was she actually reading the words? Was she understanding what she read? Was she looking at the pictures? I was curious to find out what my mother was capable of. I realized that in order to do that, I needed to sit down and read with her—preferably from a book with pictures and simple text.

If it is simple text you need, why not just read a children’s book with a person with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory impairment?

You know, I thought about reading a children’s book with Mom, but I quickly decided against it. I wanted to read material with her that she could relate to. I wanted material about topics and activities that were enjoyable and relevant to her, like “taking a nap in the afternoon” and “watching TV under a big, cozy blanket.” After considerable searching and not finding what I was looking for, I realized I would have to write it myself. And so I did.

The result was The Sunshine on My Face: A Read-Aloud Book for Memory-Challenged Adults. It’s appropriate for older adults. My mom was a kindergarten teacher for about 25 years. Sharing a children’s book like those she’d read to her pupils really didn’t feel right! People with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are still adults and, even for reading material, shouldn’t be treated like children.

What is the significance of the “Two-Lap” concept?

Two-Lap books are designed to be an activity to promote interaction—to be an activity to do together. The books are big enough to be looked at comfortably spread over the laps of both people. When this book first published, the two-lap concept was a novel idea that hadn’t been suggested before for people with dementia.

How much did you personalize this book to your mother’s interests?

I felt my mother would relate to content that was universal instead of content that was specific to her life (like raising 4 children, teaching kindergarten, singing in choral groups). I focused on more general themes, and it turns out that that content is relevant to many caregivers and to those they are caring for.

The Sunshine on My Face has gained international recognition and was even translated into Japanese. How did you know it would speak to others with dementia?

I felt that if my mother would relate to this material, others would too. I felt that simple, delightful activities were easy for most people to relate to or reminisce about. That means the caregiver can relate to the words and illustrations as well. Not only did Mom enjoy engaging with this material, but I did too—and I want other caregivers to experience the same enjoyment.

Of all the experiences described in the book, why did you choose “the sunshine on my face” for the title?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love to feel the sunshine on their face, and this was the first sentence that occurred to me when I started writing this material. There isn’t anything to “do” when you feel the sun on your face—it is a passive activity that universally feels good. That’s true of all of the activities the book highlights—they are pleasant and aren’t demanding. As Alzheimer’s disease and dementia progress, it’s important to have these sorts of failure-free activities. Going for a ride in the countryside or smelling warm apple pie are soothing images that anyone can relate to. Plus, Mom did love to bask in the sun!

Aside from recognizing its enduring appeal for a decade, why produce a 10th anniversary edition? What makes it special?

Over the past 10 years, caregivers have shared what they enjoyed when using this book, including the ease of having something delightful to do during a visit, being guided in how to elicit conversation, and the pleasure of hearing laughter in response to an illustration. We incorporated this feedback into an expanded section called “Ways to enjoy a Two-Lap Book,” which includes creative activity suggestions. Singing songs associated with the illustrations has proven especially popular, so we’ve added song suggestions for every page. These are all helpful additions for new readers.

It can be hard to get a person who has dementia involved in an activity. How do you recommend getting a loved one interested in reading this book?

This book is an in-the-moment activity, which is perfect for people with moderate to advanced dementia who only exist “in the moment.” You can begin by inviting your loved one to engage with you in some way by using this book. You can look at illustrations together, ask a question about the illustration, invite your companion to read the words out loud, or simply start reading a selected page out loud to your loved one. You may want to start with a song suggested at the back of the book.

The beauty of a Two-Lap Book is that there is no “right” way to use it! Do what feels good to you and your reading companion!

In the book, you say that there are many ways to use a Two-Lap Book. What are some of these ways?

Reading — You can invite your reading companion to read with you, using gentle persuasion (as you probably won’t know if they have residual reading capability when you start). If they can and will read, great. If not, you can read to them.

Enjoying the illustrations — The illustrations in this book are colorful, playful, and whimsical, and include old-fashioned imagery that helps spark reminiscence. You can talk about what you see in each picture and ask questions about the content. We include helpful conversation prompts in the back of the book with appropriate suggestions for each page.

Singing — Delightful, well-known songs have been specially selected for each page. YouTube allows you to easily search for songs so you can even use accompanying music while reading.

Playing games — Engage your companion in simple activities on each page, such as finding the animals, finding different colors, sharing what you both like the most.

What do you hope others will get out of reading this book?

It’s been 11 years since my mother passed away. Reading material from The Sunshine on My Face brought smiles to my mother’s face, and delight to me during the difficult last part of her life.

The impact of Two-Lap Books has been to bring smiles, conversation, and engagement in a simple, portable, universally appreciated format. I don’t think anything means more to someone caring for a person with dementia than to see a smile and hear a few happy words. The Sunshine on My Face can provide both, with every page, illustration, conversation prompt, and song!

In the 10 years since The Sunshine on My Face, you wrote two additional books in this series, Happy New Year to You! and Wishing On a Star. What do you hope is the legacy of the Two-Lap Book® series?

I am very proud of the contributions Two-Lap Books are making for caregivers and loved ones. I think the growing legacy (I do see more Two-Lap Books down the road!) will be that readers continue to experience the happiness, connectedness and, yes, love that comes from this activity.

Two-Lap Books have the added benefit of helping caregivers know how to communicate better with their loved one with dementia. The books often spark a positive interaction that can be extended well after the reading session is complete.

You’re very active on social media. Where can readers follow you?

I love social media as a way of connecting with people with similar interests. I look forward to connecting with Two-Lap Book readers!

Facebook — www.facebook.com/twolapbooks
Twitter —  @lydiaburdick (www.twitter.com/lydiaburdick)
Pinterest — www.pinterest.com/lydiaburdick
Instagram — @lydburd

Read the book!

Book cover of The Sunshine on My Face 10th Anniversary Edition by Lydia Burdick, The Sunshine on My Face
A Read-Aloud Book for Memory-Challenged Adults
10th Anniversary Edition
Copyright © 2015 by Health Professions Press, Inc.

Inspire meaningful interactions and stimulate conversation with the 10th anniversary edition of this read-aloud book for memory-challenged adults, from Lydia Burdick’s Two-Lap Book® series.

Learn more