Helping Teens Cope with a Grandparent’s Alzheimer’s Disease

teens and Alzheimer'sAn Alzheimer’s diagnosis challenges everyone in the patient’s family. Teenagers may sometimes seem to be wrapped up in their own worlds, but a grandparent who has Alzheimer’s disease can be very troubling for them and significantly affect their lives. Of course, it goes without saying that when a teenager’s parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it is all the more devastating. Teenagers are likely to need some help from older members of the family in understanding the disease and what they can do to cope.

First, reassure your teenager that the emotions that they’re going through – which may include fear, regret, confusion, and anger as well as sadness – are all normal responses. It may be helpful for them to hear that this will be a difficult time in the family, and for you to acknowledge that this experience is a hard one for them specifically. And of course, it may be good for them to know that they are far from being the only teen in the world dealing with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, even if none of their friends have any experience with the disease. If there’s no support group in your area that they can turn to, you may want to point them to the website of AFA Teens, a branch of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. There they can find articles written just for them, a community message board where they can connect with other teens, and numerous other resources.

One of the most useful things you can do is to explain to your teenager how to communicate with their grandparent. The following are some tips you can pass along to them:

  • Approach a person with Alzheimer’s from the front, so that they are aware someone is coming.
  • Use their name to get their attention.
  • Ask questions one by one, rather than giving them too much to think about at once.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Speak clearly and not too fast.
  • Remember that if they forget your name, it says nothing about how much they love you. Just be patient and tell them who you are.
  • Use a voice that is gentle and kind.
  • Smile and use hand gestures and other body language. This sets a positive tone and makes you easier to understand.

One aspect of the disease that teens have trouble with is how to spend time with their grandparent. How do you connect with someone who doesn’t even remember you? Let them know that their grandparent will be glad to have someone come visit them and pay attention to them, even if they don’t know who that someone is. Here are some tips for visits:

  • Help grandparents do some basic, manageable chores. The feeling of getting something done and being useful can be very therapeutic.
  • Ask them questions about the distant past, for example: “What was your life like when you were my age?”
  • Listen to your grandparent’s favorite music. This may also get them talking about the past.
  • Go through family photo albums, especially older ones.
  • Play a game together or work on a puzzle.
  • Read them something that they might enjoy.

It can be easy to forget the needs of teenagers during this difficult time, especially for a parent who is scrambling just to take care of their aging mom or dad. But remember that teens can be very sensitive to what’s going on around them. Spending just a little time to help them adjust to what’s going on can make all the difference.