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How To Talk To Grandchildren About Dementia

Little boy with his grandfather having fun outdoor

While we’re learning more about possible causes of dementia, it’s still very much a condition that’s difficult for adults to understand or predict. So, when a grandparent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, children can have an even harder time understanding the changes their loved one is undergoing. Luckily, there’s resources for explaining dementia to a child.

Common Feelings and Reactions To a Loved One With Dementia

Understanding how your child might feel interacting with a loved one who has dementia can help you explain dementia to them in a way they’ll understand. It’s not unusual for kids of all ages to feel one of the following:

  • Sad about how their grandparent is changing
  • Curious about how people develop Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Confusion about why grandma or grandpa is acting differently or doesn’t recognize them
  • Frustrated that they now have to repeat words or phrases when talking to their loved one
  • Guilty for resenting the time and resources their grandparent requires
  • Jealous of the additional time and attention given to their grandparent
  • Anxiety that other friends and family members might also develop dementia
  • Afraid of how their grandparent may behave
  • Embarrassed to have friends meet their grandparent
  • Unsure how to act or what to do around their grandparent

How To Explain Alzheimer’s Disease To Family Members

When explaining dementia to a child, the best thing you can do is have an age-appropriate discussion. That doesn’t mean don’t tell them what’s happening, but instead use concepts, a level of detail and words they can understand. Depending on the child’s age, you may need to have these conversations a few times. As part of your conversation, be sure to:

  • Explain what dementia is and what’s happening.
  • Let them know that their feelings are normal and that they can speak to you anytime.
  • Encourage them to ask questions.
  • Listen carefully to what they have to say.
  • Try to see the situation from your child’s point of view.
  • Acknowledge things that are happening that might seem strange.
  • Talk about their grandparent’s behavior, for example, if they’re forgetting where they are, or not recognizing family members.
  • Talk about how someone with dementia can live well.
  • Focus on the things that their grandparent can still do.
  • Be patient.
  • Where appropriate, reassure them with hugs and don’t be afraid to use humor. Laughing together can sometimes help.

Here’s a helpful YouTube video by DementiaUK.org with insights and information.

Other Ways You Can Help

Not everyone will want to have a conversation about what’s going on right away. Here’s how you can keep the lines of communication open:

  • Help your child learn more about Alzheimer’s, including the progress that’s been made in scientific research. Let them know that better treatments and even a cure could be discovered in their lifetime.
  • Begin sharing information about dementia and its symptoms as soon as you can and prepare them for upcoming changes.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough support and inform their teacher and school counselor.
  • Teens may be more open with an adult outside of the family, so explore whether a teacher, counselor or another kind of mentor is available.
  • Set aside a regular time to do activities or go on outings together. These can create opportunities for conversation.
  • If your child expresses feelings of helplessness, work together to find a way to get them involved in the care process.

Dementia FAQ

Here are some possible answers to questions your child may ask:

Q: What is Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?

A: Alzheimer’s is not just memory loss. It’s a disease that affects how the brain works and how a person thinks. Over time, it also changes the way a person’s body functions.

Q: If grandma has Alzheimer’s, will my mom or I get it too?

A: Many scientists believe that there’s a greater chance of getting the disease if someone in your family has it, but not everyone who’s related will get it. Most people who develop Alzheimer’s are older.

Q: Why does my grandpa call me by my dad’s name?

A: Changes inside your grandfather’s brain may make it difficult for him to remember things like your name. This is not your fault or his. You may remind him of your dad when he was your age. It’s best not to correct him, as that could upset or frustrate him.

Q: Will my grandma die from dementia?

A: We don’t know for sure. Some people with dementia do die from the disease, while others may pass because of another serious health condition.

Q: Why does my grandparent keep asking the same question?

A: People with dementia often remember events that happened years ago but forget things that happened yesterday or even a few minutes ago. Your grandparent may not remember that they already asked a question. It’s important to be patient and respond, even if you’ve already have.

Q: How can I help my grandparent?

A: Simply being there for your grandparent can show you care. Even when they reach the point where communication is difficult, love and kindness can be felt in the moment.

Q: Will my grandpa or grandma get better?

A: Your grandparent will have both good and bad days. Even though there are no treatments or a cure yet, scientists are working hard to find them.

Q: Will I get dementia if I spend time with grandma?

A: Dementia isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it from other people like you can the flu or chickenpox. It’s a degenerative disease, which means it develops in the brain over time.

Q: What are some things we can do with my grandparent?

A: You can still do simple activities together like:

  • Bake cookies.
  • Take a walk around the neighborhood.
  • Put a puzzle together.
  • Weed a garden or plant flowers.
  • Color or draw pictures or look at photos together.
  • Create a scrapbook or fill a memory box with mementos.
  • Read them a favorite book or story.
  • Eat a picnic lunch outside.
  • Watch reruns of old TV shows together.
  • Listen to or sing their favorite songs.

Q: Will they forget me?

A: As your grandparent’s brain changes, they may forget a lot, but they’ll still be able to feel your love.

A Heartfelt Way To Care For Those With Dementia

At Cypress Village, we offer an innovative program called Heartfelt CONNECTIONS – A Memory Care Program® that works to preserve everything that brings meaning to your loved one and your family. To learn more about how memory care at Cypress Village can support your loved one, contact us here or use our Community Assistant chat feature.