When a grandparent is beginning to struggle with the loss of mental capacity that comes with dementia, it can be very confusing for children in the family. Even very young children need to make sense of their world, and questions are common.
Most parents start off by pretending that there’s nothing wrong and that grandma is simply a little forgetful now that she’s older. Since grandparents struggling with the initial stages of dementia are still likely to remember most things, to spoil their grandkids and play with them, such simple explanations can hold your kids for a while.
With time, however, the memory lapses may become much more serious, and such lighthearted explanations may not sound satisfactory to a child. It’s important to have a reasonable plan in place for how to explain this very upsetting disease when a child becomes more inquisitive. How does one talk to a child about old age, sickness, and a gradual fading away? It can all be very sad.
It can help to begin with a good documentary
‘Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?‘, a free, well-made documentary by Maria Shriver on the subject of explaining Alzheimer’s to the young child, can be immensely helpful. Other resources exist, as well. The website of the Alzheimer’s organisation has many useful videos that help introduce the idea of dementia to a child. Once a well-made video has laid out several of the basic facts of the condition down, there will be questions, and you’ll have a much easier time explaining the ideas involved.
Be straight with your kids
Children usually find it hard to mentally process the profound the changes involved in dementia. As far as they can see, their grandparent still seems happy; there’s no need to bring in the graphic details of the disease when you speak to a child. A straight explanation about how the disease affects parts of the brain that remembers is all that’s needed. Your children will grasp whatever they feel equipped to, and forget about the rest.
Let your children see your love and respect
It’s easy to lose patience when a person becomes slower with age. When a parent struggles with memory loss, it can be harder and harder to contain one’s little impatience. It’s easy to let a little insensitivity to creep into your voice, or to sound a little patronising. Children watch these things and are influenced. It’s important to continue to be respectful.
Spend time together
Going on outings, sitting down to a meal together or playing games together can all help create situations that offer your child insight into the condition. Little thoughts offered in context can work far better than a technical speech about the course that the disease takes. Activities can help a child see how it’s completely okay to be natural with a grandparent caught up in the condition.
Give your children caregiving tasks
Having grandchildren visit is often a happy time to those with dementia. To grandchildren who haven’t adequately grasped the nature of the condition, however, things can be confusing. It can greatly help the bonding process to ask the child to help with little tasks — handing over a glass of water, asking a couple of questions and so on.
According to Parc Provence, a leading dementia caregiver, it can help to school a child in the kind of questions to ask. While specifics about friends and family may prove to be hard to answer, questions about favourite foods and sports are often very good. It’s important to encourage children to come by on regular visits to help learn sensitivity to such health conditions.
Offer a few reminders on what not to say
A person with Alzheimer’s can make so many obvious mistakes in the course of a conversation, that it may be hard even for a child to hold back from correcting them. It’s important to offer gentle guidance to show that this isn’t a good idea. The condition does come with serious memory loss, it’s important to work around it, rather than to offer corrections. If a child does make a mistake here, a little reminder in private is all it should take.
Kate Howard is a parent who has had to sit her children down and explain that a grandparent on both sides of the family has Alzheimer’s and what this will mean for the family.