If adults are confused and upset by the affects of Alzheimer’s on Grandma or Grandpa, you can bet grandchildren will be anxious, too. As the adult children and caregivers of parents with increasing memory loss, we may forget that our children are also wrestling with this new and difficult reality.
Fortunately, we can turn to the Alzheimer’s Association website, support groups and friends for advice about how to explain to children and teens what is happening to our loved ones with dementia.
Dementia behavior confuses children
When a friend or family member has Alzheimer’s disease, as adults we often feel upset, confused or scared. Imagine how much more terrifying the changes in behavior and personality must be to children and teens. Kids do not know that changes in the brain are destroying their memory, thinking and feeling. And although Grandma or Grandpa looks about the same, they don’t act like they did before.
Whether the grandparents live at home or in a memory care community, grandchildren are tuned into their parents’ feelings, often feeling guilty for bad things like Grandpa’s strange behavior and Mom’s anxiety. Children can also be scared by changes in the grandparent who was once gentle and loving, but who has now become irritable and even mean and abusive.
How to explain dementia to kids
There are a number of ways parents can help children understand or at least cope with these frightening personality changes. For example, parents can turn on the radio and dial the tuner back and forth to represent how Grandma is experiencing lots of brain static. As a result, Grandma fells really confused and frustrated. She sometimes “acts out” just like a little kid because she can’t put ideas together like she once did.
It is also important to explain that people with dementia are not acting out because they want to or they don’t love you anymore. Instead, tell how the changes in the brain have scrambled their thinking and their ability to make sense out of the world.
From the child’s perspective
What children may be feeling when a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease:
- Fear and grief at the gradual losses the family member experiences.
- Ashamed; may avoid inviting friends home.
- Anxious if he or she detects stress in the parents’ relationship.
- Loneliness due to a parent focusing his or her attention on the ill family member.
- Awkwardness due to a reversal of roles within the family.
- Frustrated due to changes in lifestyle.
- Frightened about his or her own future and the chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Ways parents can help children cope
Books – Age appropriate books such as Maria Shriver’s “What’s Happening to Grandpa?” is a great way to help kids feel less alone.
Support from peers, caring adults – Look for a support group, talk to their school counselor and teacher.
Discuss embarrassment – Most people are embarrassed by dementia’s strange behaviors. Be honest about your own struggle to cope.
Involve kids in care – Enlist the kids in some activity such as playing an instrument, helping around the house or writing letters to their grandparent.
Each child is different – Some kids will pitch in with care, others will not be comfortable. Give them options to help but respect these differences.
The gift of touch – Again, don’t force a kiss or a hug, but if possible encourage some sort of touching. It’s good for everyone.
No abuse allowed – Model compassionate behavior. If Grandpa is in a rage, gently say, “We will leave Grandpa with other help until he’s better,” and remove the child from the room.
Get support for yourself – Work on your own feelings so you can help your child.