When you find out that a loved one has Alzheimer’s, your first instinct may be to avoid discussing the diagnosis with friends and family — especially young children. However, since this situation will affect them too, it’s important to be up-front with them about what’s happening, and what’s going to change.
In fact, kids are often far more perceptive than we realize. The younger members of your family may have already picked up on the fact that something’s wrong, even if they don’t understand what it is. An honest conversation about Alzheimer’s will help clear up the confusion they may be feeling, and give them the opportunity to ask questions and get some answers.
Here are some quick tips on talking to children and grandchildren about your loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis — and getting them involved if they want to help.
Explain the situation clearly and honestly, using age-appropriate language.
Some of the children in your family have probably noticed that things aren’t quite the same with your loved one. They may have overheard tense conversations about a scary disease, and may even have asked questions like, “What’s wrong with Grandpa?” — only to get unclear answers from adults who weren’t sure about the diagnosis, or who wanted to avoid upsetting them.
What’s most crucial right now is to explain the facts clearly and honestly, in a way that’s appropriate for each child’s age and maturity level. For example, when talking to a six-year-old, it’s best to stick to specifics like, “Grandpa has a sickness that’s making him forget people’s names.” However, young children can become very distressed at the idea of being forgotten by a loved one — so it’s important to reassure them that even as the person with Alzheimer’s becomes more forgetful, the love between the two of them will remain just as real as ever.
With an older child or a teenager, on the other hand, it’s often helpful to begin with a question like, “Do you know what Alzheimer’s disease is?” Their answer will help you avoid rehashing facts they already know, while also giving you the opportunity to correct any misinformation they might’ve heard. You may want to explain that Alzheimer’s causes damage deep inside the brain, which will gradually make it harder for your loved one to make sense of the world — though their identity and personality may remain intact for months or even years to come.
Be prepared for an emotional response — and for some tough questions.
If a child is close to the person with Alzheimer’s, their immediate reaction may be an angry or fearful outburst — or an abrupt emotional shutdown. These are all natural responses, and it’s important to give the child time and space to express how they really feel. The most helpful things you can offer at this point are comfort, sympathy, and straightforward answers to any questions the child asks.
Younger children may sometimes want to know if this is their fault, or if the person with Alzheimer’s is angry with them, or doesn’t love them anymore. It’s important to make it clear that no one caused this; Alzheimer’s is an illness that makes people sick on the inside, and it can sometimes make people say or do things they don’t really mean, even to people they truly love. Most of all, it’s important to reaffirm that the child hasn’t done anything wrong, and that the person with Alzheimer’s still loves them.
Older children may worry that you and/or other family members will also develop Alzheimer’s in the near future. You can help put their mind at ease by explaining that the disease is rarely inherited, and less than 10 percent of cases run in families. “Well what causes it, then?” is a frequent follow-up question. Once again, it’s important to be honest: scientists don’t yet understand all the causes of Alzheimer’s, or how to cure it. If a child asks further questions you’re not sure how to answer, you can direct them to free online resources like the Alzheimer’s Association website — or better yet, search for the answers together.
And if a child asks how you’re feeling, tell them the truth in an age-appropriate way. Younger children may be satisfied if you simply explain, “I’m sad, and it’s okay for you to be sad, too.” Teenagers will be better able to understand the complex mixture of grief, hurt and anger you may be feeling — in fact, they may experience many of those same emotions themselves.
Brainstorm some activities to enjoy with the person who has Alzheimer’s.
Both younger and older children may be concerned that they’ll no longer be able to spend quality time with their loved one. Reassure them that it’s actually very helpful for a person with Alzheimer’s to continue socializing with close friends and family — in fact, you can even invite the child to join you in brainstorming some fun activities to do together.
For example, younger children often enjoy making simple arts and crafts projects with a person who has Alzheimers. Older children and teenagers, meanwhile, may like to flip through family photo albums and listen to your loved one’s stories of days gone by. And kids of every age (as well as adults) can join your loved one in singing along to timeless songs, playing card and board games, and reading aloud from favorite books.
All these activities can be highly beneficial for your loved one, too. Staying mentally and socially active helps support positive mental health for people with Alzheimer’s, by keeping them “in the loop” with friends and family. Games and exercise can also help reduce your loved one’s anxiety, and may even delay the onset of dementia by up to five years. That’s an impressive set of reasons to bring the grandkids around for some fun.
At the same time, it’s important to be aware that some children respond to distressing situations by emotionally withdrawing from the family — so you may want to go in prepared for that possibility, and remember not to take it personally if it happens. Above all, never try to force a child to spend time with a person who has Alzheimer’s. Give each child space to sort through their feelings on their own timetable.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be frightening and confusing for everyone involved, and children in particular may need some time to sort through their feelings before they feel ready to interact again. Still, a little patience and understanding will go a long way toward encouraging them to reach out and stay connected.