How to Explain Dementia to A Grandchild
Six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. That equals nearly 11 percent of the population over 65. With an increasing senior population, that number will exceed 12.7 million by 2050.
Explaining dementia to family members can be a difficult conversation. Explaining to young ones why grandma or grandpa can’t remember their name can be incredibly challenging.
Being open and honest about a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis is the best policy with all family members–including children. Understanding as much as possible about memory loss can aid your discussion.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. Upwards of 60-80 percent of dementia is Alzheimer’s. It currently does not have a cure and is a progressive condition.
Some cases are hereditary, and some have unknown causes. Alzheimer’s is defined by the buildup of plaques and brain tangles that prevents normal cell growth. This build-up results in memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and challenges in learning new information.
Some people may develop Alzheimer’s in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, but most cases are people over 65. Women make up two-thirds of the population with this type of dementia. Alzheimer’s and dementia are not normal parts of aging.
The progression of Alzheimer’s happens in stages. A person can live with the cognitive impairment for years before expressing or experiencing symptoms. Progression is categorized into three stages:
A person may still work or care for a family during the first stage of Alzheimer’s. Minor memory lapses or trouble concentrating might be the first signifier. A parent who suddenly has trouble remembering names or forgetting recently presented information will want to see a doctor immediately.
The middle or moderate stage is typically the longest stage and the point when a diagnosis is made. Children need to understand some of the changes that may happen to their grandparent during this stage:
- Personality changes and mood swings
- Withdrawing from social situations
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Forgetting personal information and life experiences
- Experiencing confusion on dates or times of day
- Wandering and getting lost
Grandparents can still be a part of their grandkids’ lives during the second stage of Alzheimer’s. Letting children do activities or even minor caretaking tasks can create a strong bond and supply vital socialization.
A person with Alzheimer’s may have a harder time participating in activities during the severe stage of Alzheimer’s. Care is usually required 24/7, and the person may experience:
- Limited speech
- Difficulty communicating
- Loss of mobility
- Weak muscle control
- Severe memory loss
No two journeys with Alzheimer’s are the same. The rate of progression is different for everyone. Seek help as soon as possible if one of your family members exhibits the warning signs of Alzheimer’s. Catching dementia early on can make a big difference to their future needs.
Join a support group if a loved one is diagnosed with dementia as soon as possible. People in similar situations can shed light on what to expect.
How can a child engage a person with Alzheimer’s?
An important thing to remember when communicating with a person with Alzheimer’s is that they are still people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The same is true for children. Be open and honest with your kids about the changes in their grandparent.
Adult children are often the first to act as caretakers to a parent with dementia. Let your child know what your duties of providing support will include. If the child is old enough, they may be able to become a member of the support system.
1. Let Your Child Know What to Expect
Letting a child know that their grandparent will experience changes is okay. It can relieve a huge burden for a child to hear the truth. Explain the stages of Alzheimer’s and let them know there may be a time when an older adult may not recognize them.
It’s hard to say their grandparent lives with something that doesn’t have a cure. Use it as a force for positive change and try to involve them in events like the Walk to End Alzheimer’s® or The Longest Day.
2. Tell Them How To Communicate
Some may think they have to adjust how they communicate with a person with dementia. It’s true to speak clearly and slowly if the person has difficulty understanding, but there are also many ways not to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s.
- Don’t shout or yell if they’re not hard of hearing.
- Don’t use baby talk or try to infantilize the person.
- Avoid phrases like, “Don’t you remember?”
- Don’t rush or answer questions for them.
- Don’t speak about them in front of them.
- Avoid teasing and arguing.
- Don’t take what they say personally.
- Live in their reality. Allow your loved one to express themselves.
A person with dementia is still a person. They have feelings and emotions that can be hurt if treated incorrectly. Let your child know their grandparents still love them even if they exhibit mood or personality changes.
3. Let Your Child Provide Socialization
People with Alzheimer’s and dementia have a significant risk for depression and anxiety. Stigmas of dementia can leave people without their social networks. Children can play a vital role in being a friend to a person with memory loss.
Encourage activity time if your child is old enough. Use the time for grandparents to tell their stories and express themselves. Let the child’s imagination run wild and be a positive force for their grandparent. Consider activities such as:
- Collaging or scrapbooking: Use photographs to trigger memories and tell stories.
- Play games: If you can get a child to play a game that’s not on a screen, great! However, a person with dementia may enjoy playing video games, which is also positive. Anything that keeps the brain active can play a vital role in promoting healthy brain activity.
- Play music: Introduce your kids to the classics by having them listen to music together. Live music and interaction can benefit an older adult with dementia if your child can play an instrument or sing.
- Learn together: Learning is a lifelong process. Let them watch educational programs or work on word puzzles together. Quizzes and trivia can be excellent ways to trigger memories while creating new ones for your child.
- Do chores together: This one may not get a lot of housework done correctly, but it is a good way for children and older adults to feel like they are contributing. Folding towels, rolling socks, or fluffing pillows are something they can do to be a part of the family structure.
4. Be Honest About the Future
Don’t let your child create situations that they may not understand. Be honest about the progression of Alzheimer’s. Kids can face a lot of anxiety over fear of the unknown. It may be easier for them to accept the symptoms of dementia by knowing what to expect and understanding that they are contributing to caring.
Remind your child there may come the point when:
- Their grandparent’s behavior and mood changes
- They might lose concentration easily
- They may forget names
- They may try to wander
- They may experience mobility challenges
- They may need to move to an Alzheimer’s care facility
Let them know it’s not like a cold; it’s not something they can catch. Let them know that supporting their grandparents is one of their most important roles. It may not be the same relationship they had before, but it’s still a vital part of life. Involve your children in your mom or dad’s experiences with Alzheimer’s.
Austin-Area Alzheimer’s Care
The Philomena provides memory care in The Retreat, thirty minutes from Downtown Austin. This service for seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia takes the caregiving duties away from family members. Specialized dementia care experts provide these duties so families can enjoy quality time with each other.
Our community provides many family-friendly events in addition to daily meals, purposeful activities, and personalized care. Visit our community in Kyle, TX to experience relief. Contact us to arrange a tour.