“What’s wrong with Grandma? She was acting funny.”
When your children start noticing your parent’s dementia, it can be hard to know what to tell them. To know what they can understand and what won’t scare them, based on their developmental stage.
And unfortunately, there isn’t one perfect answer. Each situation is different, as different as each child. But there are things you can use as guideposts when you have to answer a difficult question.
Learn how to address dementia when questions come out of the mouths of babes, below.
Interaction is Good!
If you’re lucky enough to live near to your parents/parents in law, don’t keep your children from them. There are numerous benefits for patients with dementia socializing with kids.
And there are benefits for your children as well, even if it takes some complicated and long discussions along the way.
Bringing your children around parents with dementia can help the parent’s quality of life. For example, exposure to her grandchildren will increase positive mood and engagement.
Older adults, even those who don’t know the children are related to them, smile and laugh more when they’re around kids.
And there are benefits for your children as well. Studies show that interacting with older adults/relatives decreases behavioral problems. It also helps with social development.
The age difference and the perspective their grandparent has is a good introduction to the idea of diversity. Your child who spends time with their grandparent will react more healthily to people different than themselves.
Yes – even if they have dementia. Maybe even especially if they have dementia.
When children think about someone that’s sick, most of the time it’s not someone that’s accessible. Their friend is sick at school and didn’t show up to class – they don’t see the illness.
But with dementia, children can start to understand that the illness affects the person – it’s not part of who they are. This will take them a long way later in life when their friends develop chronic illnesses and can increase empathy.
Children with higher empathy are much more successful in life.
All that to say – don’t shy away from exposing your child to their grandparents. The quality time is worth the hard discussions about why grandma acts the way she does.
Discussing Your Parent’s Dementia: Let Kids Lead
Now that you know why having the conversations matter so much, let’s get into how to bring it up. Let your child start noticing changes, don’t point them out.
Or ask them, did you notice anything different about (family member) today? Kids are like vacuums. They not only notice everything, but they take it in.
What they noticed is a good guide to what they’re ready to understand and discuss.
A five-year-old will notice fewer subtleties than an eight-year-old. Their answer or observation might be “Grandma takes a long time to talk” or “Why is grandpa saying the same thing over and over?”
While an eight-year-old might be more emotionally attached to what they notice like, “Grandma called me the wrong name today and it hurt my feelings. “Why did she forget who I am?”
Both situations warrant a careful conversation, but at different learning levels.
Let’s address how you’d respond to the five-year-old. “Why does grandpa say the same thing over and over?”
Tell your child that it’s a good question and ask what they understand about getting older. If the site only physical changes, talk about mental ones as well.
You could say something like: “When people get old, like Grandpa, their brains start to get tired. Sometimes they forget that they’ve already said something so they say it again. They don’t know that they’ve already said it, so we have to be patient with them.”
Then ask them to engage, “when does your brain get tired?” or “do you ever forget anything?” Talk about how sometimes forgetting stuff is a part of life.
Make a plan with your child about what you’ll do next time it happens. Like, “When Grandpa says the same thing again, let’s answer it the same way we did the first time and then ask HIM a question”.
More Emotional Conversations
Five-year-olds have good questions, but having your eight-year-old (or younger) ask you why Grandpa forgot who they were? It’s nothing less than heartbreaking.
You need to explain to your children that Grandpa has an illness that sometimes takes over his brain. Describe it in a visual way – it’s like sometimes his brain puts on a mask.
This on/off mask explanation will help children understand that Grandpa is still there (as himself) under the illness. Explain that he has good and bad days, just like us. Except on his bad days, the mask blocks out his memories and information.
Again, you want to make a plan about how to address these situations. Children do well with steps and guidance, especially in emotional times. Something like:
“Next time Grandpa calls you the wrong name, let’s say “Grandpa, I’m Emma, Your granddaughter” and then keep talking to him like he didn’t just forget.”
Now would be a good time to bring up that when they’re having a good day, knowing that they forgot something is embarrassing:
“We don’t want to make fun of Grandpa for forgetting or make him feel bad. He’s not doing it on purpose. After you give him a gentle reminder, keep talking to him like it didn’t happen.”
Get Professional Help
If none of this is doing the trick, you don’t know what to say, or you need help processing all this too, there’s no shame in seeing a family therapist. In fact, it’s probably the best thing you can do.
There’s no good time for your parent to forget who you are – it’s just as heartbreaking when it happens to you as it is to your kids. Processing things together, as a family, guided by a professional can help.
Need more help processing or making decisions for your parent’s dementia? Like general healthcare resources? We’ve gathered some for you, here.