How to Explain Alzheimer’s or Dementia to a Child

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When someone in the family is has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it impacts all family members—even the younger generations. For parents or guardians, it’s natural to want to shield a child from the disease. But when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia forgets a child’s name or acts irregularly in another way toward them, it can be confusing, frightening, or even traumatizing. Even if an adult tries to guard a child from a loved one’s Alzheimer’s or dementia, the child probably already realizes that something is different—children often sense a difficult situation, and it can actually increase their anxiety when they aren’t aware of the facts behind it.

An open conversation can inform children of what Alzheimer’s and dementia is, and how it affects the loved one in their life. That’s why many experts recommend openly discussing the disease instead of shielding children from it. Here are a few tips for explaining Alzheimer’s or dementia to a child:

Be open and honest

Give clear but appropriate details that make sense for the child at his or her age. For younger children, parents and guardians can explain the disease in simple terms they will understand by saying things like, “Grandma’s brain is sick, which can make her forget things sometimes.” For teenagers, adults can give more details and facts: “Grandma might forget that she should stay in the house, and could get lost if she leaves.” Encourage kids and teens to talk about their emotions, and honestly answer any questions they have while keeping their feelings in mind.

Explain that Alzheimer’s and dementia behavior isn’t their fault

When a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia gets frustrated and acts out through yelling or crying or other “catastrophic reactions,” remind them that the anger or confusion is a result of the disease, not the child’s behavior.

Don’t exclude children in routines

Try to keep interactions as normal as possible by including children and young adults in routines so that they can see their loved one is still the same person, even if they sometimes act differently as a result of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Let them see you cope with Alzheimer’s and dementia

When children can see their parents or guardians cope and react to a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, they can learn valuable coping skills. Talking about the challenges that come with the disease also teaches them to process pain or sadness through observation and open conversation.

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