The World Health Organization estimates that there are 50 million people worldwide living with some form of dementia. Every form of dementia impacts language, memory and decision-making. However, dementia will manifest itself uniquely in each individual.
Dementia can be difficult enough to understand as an adult, let alone as a child. If you are a parent or guardian, explaining a loved one’s dementia to your child may feel like a monumental task. You play a crucial role in helping your child understand what is happening to their loved one and why. It is not your job to try and manage how your child responds or copes with this information. Simply do your best to ask and answer questions calmly and honestly.
Here are 5 tips for starting a dialogue with your child about dementia:
Start the conversation sooner rather than later
A dementia diagnosis is distressing. Therefore, it is natural for adults to want to keep children in the dark as long as possible. However, the sooner you can have a clam and honest conversation with a child, the better. Young people often pick up on relational tensions and difficult atmospheres. If they don’t know what is happening, it can cause them to become upset or anxious. Additionally, being told much later could feel like a breach of trust. Hearing the truth from you may actually bring relief and clear up any confusion they potentially have about their loved one’s behavior.
Prepare yourself with resources
Children are naturally inquisitive, so it can be helpful to think ahead of time about questions they might ask when you tell them about their loved one’s dementia diagnosis. Alzheimer’s Research UK has a great site to look at with your child. Their resources are even categorized by age range so that you can find age-appropriate material. Here, you can find help answering common questions like, What is happening to them? Will they get better? Is there a cure? Will you get dementia? Does it hurt?
Get your child involved in a special way
If it feels appropriate, ask your child if there is anything they want to do in response to this new information. Would your child want to do a charity walk to raise money for dementia research? Or, create a photo book or memory book for their loved one? How about engaging in some relaxing activities together like coloring or reading short stories? Some senior care providers have adult day care software that allows families to upload media and messages for their loved one to see. This can be great for those who live long-distance from their loved one with dementia.
Address anxieties head-on
Here are some common anxieties children and teens may feel when it comes to their loved one’s dementia:
- Fear of talking to adults about their worries because they see the adults are already stressed out
- Afraid to show their emotions
- Possessing a belief that they are somehow responsible for the illness
- Fear that their parent will develop dementia, too
It is important to identify and address any anxieties before they become problematic. Provide calming reassurance, factual information and clear explanations around what dementia is and why it happens.
Let your child know what to expect
There are several stages of dementia, each with its own set of challenges. It will always be important to let your child know what types of behaviors they might see their loved one display due to signals getting lost and mixed up in the brain. For example, you can gently let them know “Grandma might get confused and think she’s a kid again” or “Did you notice grandpa’s hands were shaking a lot? The dementia is starting to cause parts of his body to shake a lot. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt him.”
Talking through each stage of a loved one’s dementia with your child will bring them reassurance. The next step is to show your child how you continue to love and shower your loved one with affection. This helps your child remember that their grandparent or relative is still in there.