Getting the news that your parent or loved one has been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is surely a big blow. To the person who is directly affected and for their family as well. As adult children or family members of these individuals we are better able to absorb this information, realize what it means for the future and what we will need to do to help make life easy for our loved one as the disease progresses. What sometimes goes by the wayside though after a diagnosis like this is given, is properly explaining what’s happening to the grandkids. Kids can be pretty affected by these things too and it is really important to make sure that the way you explain things isn’t scary, isn’t too little information or too much information. Think Goldilocks and the 3 bears…it needs to be just right.
At first glance, people with early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s don’t look sick and may have very mild symptoms so a child might be doubly confused by what’s going on. Taking the time to explain in kid-friendly language that grandmom or grandpop has a problem with their memory but not with their actual body might help to clear things up a little. Talk to them about how we all get forgetful sometimes. Remind them of a time that they forgot to do something and explain that it is kind of like that for grandmom. Kids love to be little helpers so telling them that they can be a great help if grandmom forgets something will make them feel like they are not being left out or their feelings ignored. And remember too that the word disease is often frightening to children. Explain that this disease is not contagious and you can’t catch it like a cold so don’t be afraid to hug and love grandmom or grandpop. That extra affection will actually help grandmom to feel better!
Another thing to take into account is that a child’s feelings may be hurt and they may feel really sad if their favorite grandparent doesn’t remember them. That can be very confusing especially if just last week grandmom or grandpop didn’t make the same mistake. Assure your child that just because grandmom forgot does not mean that they don’t love you. Reminisce with them about happy or fun times that they had with grandmom or grandpop and remind them that they will still have those experiences. In fact, especially at the beginning, early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, keep the interactions as normal as possible. There is no need to really change much except that if you used to leave you children in your loved one’s care, you may want to make sure there is another adult around if you do just in case. Even if the symptoms are few and mild at this point. As the disease progresses, don’t be surprised if your children pull back and may become hesitant to go visit. It can be scary and sad for them to see their loved one going through something like this so take your cues from them and don’t force the subject.
Finally, remember that kids are just kids! They don’t need a full scientific, detail- oriented explanation of what is happening to their loved one. Sometimes too much information is just that – too much! Kids will understand if you break it down in easy to understand tidbits in language that they can absorb. Keep it simple, be supportive and answer questions that they have honestly. Lying to kids is never the answer. They can sense when things are wrong and lying or telling them things are fine when they are not may cause unnecessary worry or stress.
Check out this website for videos and tools to help explain Alzheimer’s and dementia to kids and teens: http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_just_for_kids_and_teens.asp
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