Updated: Oct 6, 2022
When a person is diagnosed with dementia, countless number of friends and family members will be affected, including grandchildren. How younger members of the family are affected may not be top of mind with all the stress of what is happening. It is easy to forget that they probably have questions and concerns just like everyone else in the family.
If you find it confusing to understand the many changes that dementia causes, imagine how a young child will feel. They, too, will likely be confused about why their grandparent is acting different, may blame themselves, and may even think that grandma or grandpa no longer loves them.
How do you explain dementia to a child? The best approach is to be real and honest. Don’t cover up and pretend like grandma just isn’t feeling well today or that this is old age. Not explaining dementia in age appropriate terms could lead to false hope that grandma will get better, or it may create unnecessary panic that everyone in the child’s life will get dementia.
One of the issues with dementia is it creates fear. You may not know what to say or do to make life better for the person living with dementia but not talking about it only perpetuates the fear and uncertainty that everyone is feeling. Instead, use the diagnosis as an opportunity to start conversations with family members and don’t exclude grandchildren. You may think they are too young to understand and you don’t want to hurt them, but children are sometimes more resilient and able to cope than adults when given the opportunity to talk and ask questions.
In simple terms, explain that grandma has a condition that affects her brain. Explain it like you would any other disease. Tell the child that there are diseases of the brain just like there are diseases of the skin, eyes, liver, kidneys, lungs and heart. Help them to understand that the brain is very complex and has many different pieces to it. The brain controls every part of your body and depending on the part that is affected, that is where abilities will be impacted. Let them know that it is much more than just a memory problem. Dementia may also cause grandma to seem different in terms of her personality and how she communicates.
Let the child ask questions and answer them to the best of your ability. Check in with how they are feeling. Let them know that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to feel different emotions ranging from grief, sadness, irritation, anger and loss. Be open with how you are feeling as well. It’s okay for children to see adults cry or be sad when someone in the family is sick.
Most importantly, tell the child that their grandparent still loves them. Grandma or grandpa may not remember their name or who they are, but emotional memories stay strong. They will remember them as someone they love.
Dementia impacts the whole family, including grandchildren. Don’t be afraid to open the door to conversations so that children can express their feelings, understand what is happening to grandma or granddad, and learn how to continue the relationship with a person they love so very much!