Helping a Child Better Understand Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Children can have a tough time understanding the challenges of dementia.While it is incredibly difficult for adults to adjust to the progressive challenges that come along with caring for a loved one with dementia, the pain and frustration a child (or teen) might feel can become almost overwhelming. Imagine, for a moment, the difficulties in comprehending why their grandparent or other loved one no longer recognizes them or behaves in a manner inconsistent with previous experiences. It can be tough, but being aware of your child’s feelings and helping them learn to cope can reduce frustration on the part of both your child and your loved one.

Dealing with dementia can be frightening as you watch your loved one’s memory and behavior fade into unknown territory. However, children are often curious and as they begin to notice changes, you might help to ward off anxiety by both anticipating questions and by quickly addressing their questions in an age-appropriate manner.

For example, depending on the emotional closeness the child has enjoyed with the loved one, the fact that grandma can no longer remember them or seems to be acting bizarre in your child’s presence may suggest the loving, special bond once shared is now lost. Feelings of rejection can ensue. However, you can always do your best to reassure your child that the disease causes difficulty in remembering things. Remind them that Grandma does, however, still love them and regards them as a special part of her life.

Young children may develop a concern that you, too, may begin to develop similar symptoms and that they might “lose” you, too. Educate them; dementia is not a contagious disease and it is not a part of the normal aging process.

Questions regarding what happens next will have to be addressed gingerly. Young children thrive upon routine; therefore, you will do well to explain to young children how their normal routine may change a bit in the face of the illness. Combat feelings of jealousy by assuring them that although your loved one will need time and attention, they are still an important part of your family unit.

Signs that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is affecting your child may come in indirect manners, such as substandard grades or withdrawal from friends. In instances where your loved one is being cared for in the home, emotional expressions may become more exaggerated or more frequent. For example, your child or teen may become exceptionally frustrated at having to repeat themselves again and again, or from being subjected to seemingly silly accounts given by your loved one. He or she may feel that the loved one with cognitive decline gets all the attention and may lash out in the moment.

While it is likely that both you and your child will be learning – and coping – with the effects of the disease at the same time, gently remind them that all people (even those who are forgetful and sometimes difficult) have the capacity to feel and receive the outpouring of love in the moment. Encourage your child to talk about feelings and observations; your child may reveal things you haven’t previously addressed that could be an underlying cause for concern. As much as you can, help them to comprehend that you, too, can empathize with their feelings. Further, help them understand that their grandparent or other relative with cognitive decline did not choose the disease and that the changes happening inside their brain is what is causing the memory and behavior problems.

For you as a parent, read over related materials to help with these discussions. Try involving your child with the loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s by engaging them in simple activities like listening to music, setting the table, or creating memory boxes. Above all, you and your child can come together to devise ways of showing your love and support which helps you both to keep an open line of communication available for everyone involved.