Advice on How to Talk to Children About a Grandparent’s Dementia Condition, Broken Down By Age Group
After a diagnosis, it can be complicated to decide how to explain Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to family members unfamiliar with the disease. Even for an adult, it can be emotionally difficult to understand the causes and effects of dementia. So imagine trying to explain dementia to a child, pre-teen or teenager.
It can be hard for a child of any age to understand what dementia is, even if a parent explains dementia accurately. The child may be confused or scared to witness an older adult’s changes in behavior or memory. The child may also find it difficult to cope with their feelings or share their feelings with someone else.
Parents may initially be inclined not to talk at great length to their children about dementia, choosing to share just a brief clinical definition of dementia, electing not to fully explain the disease or opting not to address the situation at all. But experts agree it’s important to tell children about their loved one’s dementia diagnosis, and to try to be as open and honest as possible about the situation.
Why parents should explain dementia to children
Children tend to be very intuitive about the feelings of grown-ups around them and may develop feelings of anxiety or depression if they don’t understand the changes in those they love. And even with a clear explanation of what dementia is, children may be hesitant or fearful to be around the person with dementia.
It can actually be reassuring for children and young people to understand what the problem is. If they aren’t told the truth about what’s happening sooner, they may find it difficult to trust what someone close to them says later on. It may also be more upsetting for the child or young person to find out about a diagnosis later than to cope with the reality of what’s happening now.
Seeing how people around them cope with difficult situations can also help children and young people learn valuable skills about dealing with tough and distressing situations. This can help them to better manage painful emotions.
How to explain dementia to a child
To help parents understand how to explain Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to their young family members, it may be most beneficial to explain it according to the child’s age group.
Before a parent begins, it may be helpful to remember a few universal pieces of advice, regardless of the child’s age:
- If the person with dementia is in the early stages of the disease, a parent should ask them if they would like to be included in the conversation. If the loved one with dementia wants to participate, they can be an excellent source of information and comfort to the child.
- Try to provide clear explanations and plenty of reassurance. Parents may want to tell their child themselves, or they may choose to seek help from the other parent or a trusted loved one.
- A parent should let the child know who they can talk to about dementia in addition to them, so the child knows the people they can go to with questions or worries.
- Tell the child it’s okay to ask questions and share their feelings. When parents make time to listen to what the child wants to say, it encourages safe and open communication.
How to explain dementia to children ages 4-9
Anticipate the child’s questions. Children often ask if Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is contagious, like chicken pox or a cold. Children will also ask when their loved one will get better. It may help parents to prepare for common questions such as these.
Answer their questions simply and honestly. For example, if a child asks, “Why does grandma call me by the wrong name?” a parent may simply tell a young child, “Grandma has an illness that makes it hard for her to remember things.”
Help them to understand their feelings of sadness, guilt or anger are normal. Children may experience a range of emotions
Comfort them. Young children may think they did something to hurt their loved one, so parents need to make sure the child knows no one caused the disease.
Turn to additional child-friendly resources. Seek out age-appropriate videos that help explain dementia, and watch the videos together. There are also children’s books available to read to children, and the Alzheimer’s Association has child-specific resources as well.
Reduce a child’s fear of the unknown by helping young children stay connected to their loved one with dementia. Those activities might include simple arts and crafts, playing music or singing together, looking through photo albums and reading stories out loud.
How to explain dementia to children ages 10-13
Help older children connect with the symptoms, not the disease. This age group tends to be more self-aware and more empathetic than much younger children. They can easily relate to forgetting someone’s name or where the house keys are, or to feeling a sudden change in emotion they don’t know how to express. Explain the circumstance or behavior in a way that’s more suitable for this level of maturity.
Inform the child’s teacher and school counselor. Teachers play a significant role in this age group’s daily experience. And school counselors are specially trained to help children cope with a variety of situations. Parents should let these people know the ways that a loved one’s dementia is affecting the child and the family.
Talk with older children about their concerns and feelings. Some children may not talk about their negative feelings, but parents may see changes in how they act. Problems at school, with friends or at home can be a sign that they’re upset. A school counselor or social worker can help the child articulate their feelings and learn how to cope.
Share more details. This is a good age to offer up more details, such as the different types of dementia or the area of the brain that’s affected.
How to explain dementia to children ages 14-18
Help teens express their thoughts and feelings — both good and bad. Adolescence is challenging, and the disease may bring even more difficulties to a teen’s life. For example, parents may need to ask their child to pitch in more around the house or to assist with caregiving. The teen may not feel comfortable having friends over, or may feel their parents don’t have enough time for them because they’ve become caregivers to the person with dementia. Parents can help teens work through these complex feelings by reassuring them that they’re natural reactions as the disease progresses.
Check in regularly to gauge a teen’s comfort level. A teenager might find it hard to accept how the person with dementia has changed. The teen may find the changes upsetting or embarrassing and not want to be around the person. Parents shouldn’t force their teens to spend time with the person who has dementia. Instead, parents and teens can agree to check in with one another to talk about the changes the teen is seeing in their loved one. Often this can be a helpful way for the teen to better understand the disease’s progression.
Engage with a counselor, mental health professional or minister. Teens may open up more to an adult outside of the family, so explore whether a teacher, counselor or another kind of mentor is available.
Schedule a meeting with experts who understand dementia. It may help for parents and teens to sit down together and talk with a healthcare professional who works with older adults who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. These experts can answer every question and offer guidance on what to expect as the disease progresses.
Talk with the caring professionals at The Ridge
There’s a reason they say dementia affects more than the one who’s been diagnosed. The disease takes an emotional toll on the whole family, including children.
If someone you love has been diagnosed with dementia, reach out to one of The Ridge communities in Holladay, UT, Salt Lake City, UT, or Denver, CO. Each of our memory care environments is designed to mirror the comforts of home, while promoting positive days and peaceful nights for its residents.
Perhaps you need advice on how to explain a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease to family members. Or maybe you’re looking for a senior living community that offers superb memory care. Or, you’d like to find a community that offers dementia support groups.
We’d like to help support you and your family in any way we can. You may choose to call us at 1-877-894-9008, or fill out this form, and we’ll be in touch right away.