Watching a loved one change due to Alzheimer’s can be confronting, especially for children. By using these tips to help your grandchildren understand dementia (or Alzheimer’s which is a particular form of dementia), you can alleviate some of their fears and confusion.
It’s never easy watching the person you love change due to Alzheimer’s.
Although they’re still physically by your side, it can feel like you’ve lost a special part of them.
Even for adults, watching a loved one’s memory and mental abilities decline can be confronting.
So, we can only imagine how confusing and upsetting it must be for children — especially if their beloved nan or pop no longer remembers who they are.
The good news is, there are ways of explaining dementia to your grandchildren to help them understand what’s happening.
By talking to them about the condition, you can help them get the most of the treasured time they have left with their grandparent.
Tips for helping your grandchildren understand dementia
Keep it simple
When it comes to explaining dementia to a child, it’s best to keep it simple, direct and age-appropriate.
For younger children, you may choose to say something like “Grandma has a condition that makes it hard for her to remember things” or “Grandpa’s memory isn’t what it used to be, so we need to take special care of him.”
On the other hand, older children or teenagers may be more interested in understanding the ‘why’ behind dementia in the elderly.
You can explain that Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease that affects some people in old age, and that dementia is a term to describe some of the symptoms that go along with it — such as memory loss, reduced mental function and changes in behaviour.
To help with understanding dementia, it can be useful to give children a point of reference.
Some people liken the condition to regressing back to a young child — as depending on the severity of their condition they may struggle to communicate verbally.
You can use this comparison when explaining Alzheimer’s to children.
For example, you could say something like “Grandpa isn’t quite his usual self, but he’s more like that three-year-old who lives next to you.”
This can help alleviate some of the fears they have around seeing their grandparent’s behaviour change.
Use tools to help you
You don’t have to go through the experience of explaining dementia to a child alone.
There are many excellent resources out there to help guide you. Dementia Australia has a range of accurate and informative information and videos you can access also.
Storytelling can be a very powerful tool, as it helps children understand that they’re not alone in the experience of dealing with dementia.
“Grandma Forgets” is a beautiful, illustrated book that tells the heart warming story of a family’s love as they cope with their grandma’s dementia.
Harry Helps Grandpa Remember is another gentle introduction to the realities of dementia, filled with humour, hope and compassion.
YouTube is another helpful resource, as there are many videos created for kids by kids to help them understand the condition.
Explain that it’s not about them
Children may feel hurt that their grandparent no longer remembers their name or gets them confused with someone else.
They may begin to wonder if they’ve done something wrong, or if that special bond they had with their grandparent ever really existed.
It’s important to let them know that the current circumstances doesn’t mean they love them any less.
Help them understand that the memory loss and behaviour has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with their grandparent’s condition
Hear them out
It’s important to listen just as much as you talk when explaining dementia to a child.
Hear them out and be as open and honest as you can when answering their questions.
They may feel sad, confused, scared and even angry and that’s perfectly valid.
Rather than telling them that their feelings are wrong, let them know that you understand and that you’re there for them.
Put a positive spin on it
Many of us think of dementia in quite a dark and negative light — most likely, because we associate it with loss.
However, it’s possible to flip the narrative and put a more positive spin on it.
While people living with severe dementia tend to lose much of their short term memory, they’re sometimes about to recall very old ones or dream up new ones altogether.
With your grandchildren, it can be fun to immerse yourself in these imaginary worlds — you can say “I wonder where Grandpa is going on her cruise ship” or “What do you think Grandma is wearing to her debutante ball?”
With younger children, just be sure to draw the line between imagination and reality, so they know you’re just playing pretend.
Help them enjoy their time together
Just because your loved one isn’t their usual self, doesn’t mean your grandchild can’t enjoy spending time with them.
One of the best things you can do for them is to help them continue to create cherished memories together.
Try brainstorming some ways they can spend time with their grandchild without holding a complex conversation.
This could include reading to them, listening to music together or getting out into nature.
They could also make something together, such as a scrapbook, a birdhouse or some simple jewellery.
Not only is this a fun activity, but it’s also a great way to memorialise their time together.
The bond between children and their grandparents is a beautiful one, and dementia doesn’t have to change that. By using the above tips, you can help children understand Alzheimer’s and enjoy their time together without fear or confusion.