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Getting together with family can be special. The occasions can also be stressful and upsetting, especially if there has been a decline in a loved one’s physical or cognitive well being.
It can be overwhelming, specifically for children and grandchildren, to learn of a beloved grandparents diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and witness, for example, their struggle remembering names or familiar events.
While, depending on the age of the child, experts agree that the most effective dialogue is one that is honest and open, with ample opportunity to have questions answered.
When reviewing some of the literature surrounding Alzheimer’s disease through the eyes of a child, I came across a blogger for a senior care publication who writes, “Because a grandparent still looks the same, it can be tough for children to understand that they have an illness. Some of the time the grandparent may act like their old self, while other times they cannot recall who they are.” This unpredictability can be very distressing for young kids (and others), as they remain uncertain as to what they should next expect. Children may presume that grandpa is just having “a bad day” and that soon, their grandpa will be more himself.
It is important to gently acknowledge that while some days will easier than others, Alzheimer’s is an illness that will often cause more forgetfulness and that at this time has no cure. It is encouraged that for young children, parents reiterate to children that Alzheimer’s is not contagious. Parents can re-enforce to their children the understanding that it is the illness that is causing some behavior changes, not something intentional, nor anything that they did wrong. (Parents, it is very appropriate to talk with a young child about their feelings when for example, a loving patient grandmother, becomes very short tempered with their grandchild.)
While equally worrisome for an older child or teen, Alzheimer’s dialogues with this cohort can be more open-ended, while offering more concrete information on the illness. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that, if the teen is interested, time should be spent talking about the disease and the likely progression of the illness. Should a loved one move into the family home, it is encouraged that their be opportunity to share and validate any concerns that may arise as result of this change. Communication that is honest, heartfelt and interactive will benefit all parties.
An comprehendible understanding of Alzheimer’s disease for both younger and older children can be very empowering and help minimize fears and worry. It can be very beneficial in helping the children and their loved one enjoy and plan meaningful and successful times together particularly as this illness progresses. Some activities might include baking a favorite dessert together, going to a concert, looking through old photo albums, Internet searches on a grandparents birthplace and ancestry along with fun craft projects. Even if the activity is soon forgotten, the joy of the “moment” makes the time together beneficial and hopefully more memorable particularly during the “tough” times.
Children and grandchildren should find comfort in knowing that while their loved one may not recall a name or and past event, feelings of familiarity and love remains.
Marci Vandersluis is a licensed social worker and has a master’s degree in gerontology. She is employed as a care manager assisting older adults in the community connect with needed services. Email Marci at email@example.com.