Understanding and coping with a parent or loved one with dementia can be extremely emotional and stressful for adults and even more so for young children.

Grandparents hold a very special place in a child’s life, and children understandably can be confused and worried when Grandma or Grandpa start to act strange, especially when there are no noticeable physical changes. Some parents try to ignore the situation by avoiding their child’s questions or make jokes when the senior is forgetful or does something inappropriate. This approach can cause children to become extremely disconcerted and unhappy when visiting their Grandparents or senior loved ones. Although it might be difficult, being honest with a child is the best way to confront it.
Here are some suggestions on how to best handle the situation:
  • Dementia is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms will progressively worsen and become more apparent over time. It is important to begin the conversation with your children when the condition is initially diagnosed. When the early symptoms become apparent to a child, it is time to educate the family about the situation.
  • Make sure to engage in age appropriate conversation, especially when speaking with very young children. Keep it simple and understandable; remove any frightening medical terminology. Explain that Grandma and Grandpa might do some things that don’t seem right to them and it is because of something that is happening in their brain. Don’t forget to say that even though things are changing their Grandparent still loves them and will still be able to engage with them in different ways.
  • Encourage children to be honest about their feelings, and discuss any fear or discomfort they experience when they see their Grandparents. Regardless of how young or old they are it can be highly disconcerting to try and interact with a loved one who has become increasingly uncommunicative.
  • Make certain that your children get to observe you when you are on your “best behavior.” If they see you being impatient or condescending to your senior you may expect that they will mirror your behavior.
  • Make sure they know that they can still interact with their Grandparent even if their communication is different than before. They may be able to meaningfully engage through drawings or music or perhaps by reading aloud. Being affectionate can be wonderful, however be cautious about touch as seniors might suffer bouts of anxiety resulting in pushing or shoving the child.
  • There are many books on this topic for children of all ages and they can help you to explain what is happening. Provide the books but keep your own lines of communication open so that they feel comfortable asking questions and voicing their fears.
  • The observable behavioral changes may occur over a long period of time or they may happen quickly. Don’t lash out at your child if they balk at visiting or seem unwilling to interact when they are there. It may take some time for them to get used to the situation.
  • Be patient. Being the relative of a person with dementia requires accepting the situation for what it is and understanding that the senior’s love is still there even if they have difficulty in communicating the emotion.
It’s not an easy situation but one that must be approached with grace, tolerance, and love from even the youngest of children.
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