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Senior Woman and Retirement Community Staff

Talking to Your Children about Dementia

By: Country Meadows |

Children can be very perceptive especially with people they love and know best. It shows they’re paying attention and are concerned. Experiencing an aging loved one acting differently may worry or even scare them. While you may not be able to stop what’s happening to your loved one with dementia, you certainly can help your children better understand and cope with the changes.

Recognize when your children notice something is different.

“Grandma keeps forgetting things. She asks me the same questions and tells the same stories all the time.” “Grandpa’s moods change quickly and he gets confused easily.” “Nana doesn’t remember my name and mixes up her words.”

  • Ask your children to explain the changes they’ve noticed—what are the changes, how often do the changes happen and how do your children feel about them?
  • Listen attentively to what they say, picking up on their emotions as well as their words.

Educate them about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease relative to their age and interest.

  • Dementia is an overall term describing a wide range of symptoms when irreversible changes in the brain cause brain cells to die. As the cells die, memories fade and disappear. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.
  • It makes it harder for the individuals to think and remember things clearly. Sometimes it affects their moods, memories and abilities to do normal, everyday activities.
  • It takes a while to determine whether a person has some type of dementia. Doctors are usually the best sources to diagnose your loved one after doing tests and other evaluations.
  • Dementia affects each person differently. It is important to remember who the loved one is to your children, how special he or she is and how your children want to show they care.

Talk to your children openly and honestly if they are wondering how serious this is.

  • Scientists and doctors don’t know yet exactly how people get dementia, but they do know it is not spread by germs. People don’t “catch it” from someone who has it nor can it be “fixed” by medicine.
  • Currently dementia is not curable, and many types are progressive. The individual may seem his or her usual self one day and completely different the next. As time goes by, there may be more thinking and memory problems.
  • It’s likely some of your children’s friends and schoolmates have a relative with dementia. This demonstrates they are not alone in this experience.
  • Sometimes children worry their parents might get it. The majority of dementia types are not inherited so it’s very unlikely. Also, children may fear they have dementia when they forget something. Simply explain this is not the case as we all forget things time to time just like people sometimes sneeze even when they don’t have a cold.

Guide your children in how to help, what to say and what to do with your loved ones.

  • The most important things your children can do are accept and respect the person as he or she is at each moment.
  • Let your loved ones know how much they are loved and appreciated.
  • At the beginning of each conversation, stop (relax and clear your mind), look and listen (really notice the expression on your loved one’s face and hear the feelings in his or her voice) and then stay (be in the moment, completely focused and genuinely interested in him or her).
  • Ask your loved ones about their day, where they have been and who they think about. Inquire about memories long ago such as where they grew up, if they liked school, who their friends were, etc.
  • Remind your children of activities that go beyond conversation yet are still meaningful such as holding hands, listening to music or playing with a pet.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Avoid correcting, pretending, distracting or ignoring them.

Encourage them if they find it difficult.

  • It is normal to be concerned, upset and even mad when you’re with a loved one who has dementia.
  • Common feelings are confusion, anger, fear, sadness, worry, frustration and embarrassment.
  • Welcome your children to talk with a parent, another family member or a trusted adult to sort through those feelings and let them out.

Above all, be there for your children.

  • Encourage your children to express what they’re thinking and feeling.
  • Let them know those feelings and thoughts are normal.
  • Provide comfort, support, normalcy and fun by spending quality time with just them.
  • Offer the information they want and need to know, and if you don’t know it, find it out together.
  • Commend them on their patience and good listening skills.
  • Be as responsive, honest and sensitive toward them as you can.
  • Inform them of any events or changes in advance (e.g., upcoming visits with the loved one, if your loved one is having a particularly bad week).
  • Make extra time to get your family together with your loved one and share the joys of past memories as well as caring, loving moments in the present.
  • Remind them that a moment may be lost with the loved one, but never the love.

Read more tips in our Tips Library

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