The memory loss that comes with Alzheimer’s can create extreme emotions in those who suffer from it, ranging from anxiety to anger. However, even as the short-term memory lapses, there’s still much joy and happiness to experience with your parent, and especially in their relationship with your children.
As emotionally difficult and complex as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, it is still important that you offer a simple and honest explanation to your children. An understanding of the changes in their Grandma or Grandpa can provide some measure of comfort and reassurance. With their ability to live in the moment and innocent spirit, children can teach us about interacting with adults who suffer from Alzheimer’s as well. Consider the following steps when attempting to explain Alzheimer’s to kids:
Explaining Alzheimer’s in an Age-Appropriate Way
- Be as frank as is appropriate in all discussions about Alzheimer’s. Sugarcoating facts about the condition may create the wrong ideas in a child’s head and make things worse for them as they watch the disease progress in their loved grandparent. A very good resource is The Alzheimer’s Project, an award-winning documentary, which features the children’s book “What’s Happening to Grandpa?” by Maria Shriver.
- Alzheimer’s is a big word and children may not be able to grasp the full scope of the illness, but it can still be made simple enough for various age levels. You may explain that it is an illness that causes Grandma to act differently; that it affects her brain, making her forgetful and confused sometimes. Depending on the age of the child or their level of understanding, you can explain that while there is no cure for Alzheimer’s there are still many ways to show love and care for a person experiencing memory loss. Spending time together sharing hobbies and stories, can emotionally benefit both your parent and child and is one of the best ways to help create joyful experiences for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
- Teach children what to expect as the disease worsens. They should know beforehand that there will be days when their grandparent will be confused and afraid. They should understand that Grandma or Grandpa will be very forgetful and that Alzheimer’s care involves being respectful and patient. Discussing a grandparent’s changing needs could be a good lesson in building empathy for a young person.
- A child may wonder if they or their parents could catch the disease from their grandparents. You should tell them that Alzheimer’s is not contagious and that they should not be reluctant to spend time with their grandparents or to show them affection. Introduce your children to “Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge”, a book about a young boy who forms friendships with the adults at the senior living community near his home. Reading about Wilfrid can show your children the special joys that come from inter-generational relationships.
Helping Kids Understand and Deal With Their Emotions
Naturally, your children will be saddened and confused by the changes in a family member with Alzheimer’s; an age-appropriate explanation may help them come to terms with those feelings and share many more memories and experiences with Grandma or Grandpa. Your children may also feel some amount of guilt for being embarrassed and jealous. Support them in expressing what they are feeling and help them to understand the illness along with the fact that the family has a responsibility to provide love and support.
According to a MetLife survey from 2011, 44% of American adults have a family member who suffers from the mental degeneration of Alzheimer’s.1 As the baby-boomer generation gets older, the number of those who need Alzheimer’s care is expected to grow significantly. Encourage opportunities for your children and your parents to interact and get to know each other, for your kids to listen to their stories, and perhaps to start a journal for treasuring those stories and memories. Grandparents are a gift, and the experiences your children can share with them will help shape your children’s lives, the way they interact with others, and the way they see the world as they grow up.