Explaining dementia to children

Christmas is traditionally a time of year for families to get together, and it is often a peak time for family visits to our elderly residents.

Many of them have grandchildren – and even great-grandchildren – and there is no doubt that they get immense pleasure from seeing their young relatives.

But seeing a much-loved grandparent who has developed Alzheimer’s or Dementia could be distressing for a child who perhaps has fond memories of a grandparent and finds it hard to understand what has happened to them.

So, if the elderly person’s condition has worsened since the last time the child saw them it is wise to prepare them for changes before you visit.

The various Alzheimer’s charities publish a wealth of advice on how to handle this on their websites but generally, they all advise that you try to explain the condition as honestly as possible, being mindful of the child’s age and how much information he or she may be able to cope with.

However, they also advise that while it is natural to want to protect children from difficult or confusing situations, it is important to explain what is going on and to allow children to ask as many questions as they want to.

It is also an important life lesson in helping children develop their ability to cope with difficult situations and distressing situations.

Much of what you tell them will depend on the child’s age but you should remember that even very young children will feel grief or sadness and anxiety about what is happening to their elderly relative.  They may be alarmed by unusual behaviour or bored by repeatedly being asked the same questions.

It is also not unusual for children to feel that they are in some way responsible for the changes in their loved one’s behaviour and it may also give rise to fears that they or their parents may develop the condition.

Giving clear, factual information about the condition is important but also being willing to listen and answer questions and allowing them to express their feelings are essential to helping them to cope when they visit.  Equally important is to focus on what the person with dementia can still do and encouraging them to remain involved with them.