Dealing with your parent’s dementia diagnosis can be a challenging time, and it can feel extra difficult when you're faced with the task of explaining the situation to your young children. Your children will probably have already picked up on some tension or emotionally charged conversations around your parent's memory decline.
Children are extremely perceptive, and will understand there is something happening, even if they don't know exactly what it is. Taking time to sit down and talk to them about their grandparent's dementia will help them feel secure and reassured. They may also be relieved to discover that there is a reason for any changes in behavior or unusual episodes they may have already experienced with their grandparent.
The Alzheimer’s Association has some good suggestions on helping your children cope with their grandparent’s dementia, and below we have included a few additional ideas.
Tips when talking to children about your own parent’s dementia
- Be as honest as you can with your children about the condition, explaining in a way that is appropriate to their age, that their grandparent has an illness that can affect their memory, mood and behavior.
- Tell them as much as you can in a calm and very clear way. It will be helpful to give some specific examples of changes in behavior, or how the illness is affecting their grandparent. For example, if Grandma or Grandpa keeps repeating themselves, or asking the same question, explain how their memory is affected. Be sensitive but honest, telling younger children: “Nobody is good at everything, and Grandma isn’t very good at remembering things anymore.”’ Older children can be told: “Grandma has something called dementia, and it makes her forget a lot of things, but she is still the same person, even if her behavior is changing.”
- Let your child talk openly about their feelings regarding their grandparent. They may feel sadness or loss as they watch the grandparent they had a relationship with change into a person who no longer recognizes them. They could also suffer anxiety or fear about their grandparent's future, or yours, or even their own. They may also feel embarrassed by the unusual behavior they see. It is important to let them know that you understand, and that they should share these feelings with you.
- Talk about all the characteristics or routines that may remain the same, for now. Also discuss those things that have changed or are likely to be different in the future, especially if you are caring for a parent with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, at home.
- Tell the truth from the outset to build trust around this issue between yourself, your parent, and your children. It will be a relief to the child to know that these changes in behavior can be attributed to the disease, and not because of anything they have done. Being open about the fact that a family member has dementia or Alzheimer’s means a child will trust you regarding any future illnesses or a deterioration in your own parent’s condition. It may be difficult to deliver the news and live with the effects of dementia day to day, but it is definitely better for your child to learn to cope with these changes as they are happening, and as you are learning to cope, too.
- Leave the conversation open, and let your child know they can always ask questions about their grandparent's illness and behavior. Having an open line of communication will allow you both to cope better, especially as the disease progresses. For example, you may be feeling sad about your parent's condition, or exhausted by the caregiver role you have now taken on. It will be easier for your child to understand why, if they are already aware of the situation.
- Allow your child to spend time with their grandparent who has dementia, rather than keeping them apart for fear of upsetting either of them. Explain what to expect before each meeting, especially if your parent's condition is progressing and they are unlikely to recognize your child.
- If your parent does get upset or behave strangely during a visit, talk later to your child about what happened, and explain that the behaviors are due to the challenges of the disease, and not because of anything the child said or did.
- Involve your child in your parent's care, especially if it's a big part of your own life. This is one way you can continue the relationship between your child and their grandparent. Don't expect or ask them to take on any real responsibility (unless they are themselves reaching adulthood and have expressed a willingness to help).
Remember that children have more emotional intelligence than we give them credit for. With the right support, including open and direct conversation, they will probably cope with these changes better than you expect. Even so, accepting their emotional response to the situation and exercising patience, even when you are already exhausted yourself, will be key to supporting each other through this difficult time.
If you are finding it hard to cope as a caregiver to an elderly parent with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, a Home Care company can provide the assistance you need with a specialized program.
Find out how Ezra Home Care can help by contacting our experienced and supportive team.