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Talking to your children about dementia

Posted by Dwayne J. Clark
on September 13, 2018
close up of child's and senior man's hands clasped together

Dementia is a mental disease that is far-reaching and can affect the entire family, including children and grandchildren. For kids and teens, seeing their grandparents suffer from cognitive decline can be a confusing and upsetting experience. Although the senior affected by dementia requires as much support as possible, grandchildren also need to understand how this disease affects others so they can learn how to cope with changes.

While younger children will probably have a lot of questions regarding Grandma’s condition, older children and teenagers might become withdrawn as a way of coping. Either way, it’s important that parents communicate with their children about the changes so that they are better prepared for the different ways that their grandparent might behave or act.

Usual reactions from children and teens about Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are many ways that your children or teens may react to this change, including:

  • Become frustrated by having to repeat words or phrases
  • Become embarrassed to have friends or visitors over
  • Grow jealous because of the time and attention the loved one is getting from the caregiver
  • Develop confusion about why their grandparent is acting strange or different
  • Become sad because their loved one is changing
  • Experience guilt about resenting the extra time and resources given for your loved one
  • Feel awkward or unsure about how to act around their loved one
  • Feel sad because their grandparent doesn’t recognize them
  • Become fearful of their loved one

As a parent, you need to know that all of these actions are completely normal. These reactions are all typical ways for a child or teen to understand a very complex condition with someone they have loved. Depending on the child’s temperament,  he or she will react in a variety of ways. Some may withdraw from others. Others will experience physical pain as a result of the anxiety, such as stomachaches or headaches. Arguments may also arise with teenagers, especially with parents who are devoting a lot of their time as caregivers.

How to explain Alzheimer’s and dementia to a child

From the beginning, it is important to explain to young children what to expect and how to react to their grandparent’s mental decline. According to Today’s Parent, one way is to compare Alzheimer’s to a common illness that they might have experienced. Ask your child “Do you remember having a fever or cough when you had the flu?” Then simply explain, “Just like your body was sick during that time, Grandma’s brain is sick.” This can give them a concrete and simple explanation about the illness. You should also tell them that even though their grandparent’s cognitive ability might be in decline, Grandma still recognizes love and affection, even if it is just felt in the moment.

One way your child can continue to bond with his or her grandparent is to share activities that they have always enjoyed together. For instance, if Grandpa loves music, have your child play his favorite songs and sing along with them, or if he had a green thumb, suggest that the two of them plant a garden together to create more memories. If your loved one was a great cook, have your child tie on an apron and help cook dinner.

If your young children ask questions about Alzheimer’s or dementia, it is important that you answer in an honest, age-appropriate way. Sugar-coating the message will only complicate things more for them. Kids have very intuitive minds and can understand and observe complex situations more than we realize. Be honest about what is happening to their grandparent. No matter what age your child is, it is probably a good idea for you to inform their teacher(s), as it may also affect their performance in school.

There are several children’s books that are excellent for young children that are trying to better understand cognitive decline, including:

  • “Saturdays with GG” by Dwayne J. Clark
  • “Always My Grandpa: A Story for Children About Alzheimer’s Disease” by Dr. Linda Scacco
  • “My New Granny” by Elisabeth Steinkellner
  • “Do You Have a Moon at Your House?” by Jeanie L. Johnson

The best ways to explain dementia to a teenager

Going through adolescence, as we all know, can be a challenging phase in one’s life. As an older child, your teen may have even more difficulty communicating his or her frustrations about the changes Grandpa is going through and might become resentful of the extra weight he or she might have to pull around the house.

However, fostering the right attitude will help your teen tremendously and taking care of your loved one together could help you and your older child become closer. There are special issues that teens may face when their loved one is afflicted with dementia. For example, they may feel torn about the extra duties they have to perform around the house while still keeping up with their homework and extracurricular activities. They also might refrain from talking to their friends about their loved one’s condition because they are embarrassed about the unusual behavior that Grandma is expressing.

Like young children, teens are very receptive to honest and straightforward explanations about dementia and Alzheimer’s. Even if they don’t respond at first, it is important to keep the communication open about this subject so that you can reach a level of understanding as a family. You can share more concrete information about Alzheimer’s, what it does to the brain and how it will affect your family dynamics down the road, with teens than you would young kids. Teenagers need support no matter what, but this type of news may require even more understanding and comfort as a parent. Let him or her know that feelings they are having are normal and be sure to have regular time spent with one another so that they have the opportunity to communicate their feelings, ask questions or simply “vent” frustrations.

With the whole family on the same page, including your young child or teen, you can give your loved one the support and comfort they need.

Profile image of Dwayne J. Clark

Dwayne J. Clark

Founder and CEO

Dwayne founded Aegis Living to offer breakthrough design, disruptive operational concepts and transformative living experiences that bring joy, comfort and meaning to the lives of seniors. With more than 30 years in the senior housing arena, he is nationally known for his creativity, innovation, and independent thinking in the development and management of senior living communities.

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