When my neighbor was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter reached out to me. Even in the early stages she could see changes in her father’s behavior, and wondered how to explain these things to her young son. He has such a close relationship with his grandpa, but now he sometimes looks uncomfortable around him. She wanted some suggestions to help him.
Having a loved one with Alzheimer’s affects everyone in the family. Watching the progression of this disease can be frightening for adults, and confusing and scary for children. Although each child will react differently, reassurance and clear explanations are key to helping children adjust. One straightforward way to help grandchildren understand what is going on is to explain that just as they get colds or tummy aches, Grandpa has an illness that causes him to act differently and forget things. In an age-appropriate way, you can let them know that the brain is changing inside from the disease, while also reassuring them that the disease is not contagious. Using words that are easy to understand and encouraging questions from your grandchild will make him feel included in this challenging journey.
Helping Your Grandchild Understand
Your grandchild will have a lot of feelings about this change in his life — and he likely won’t know how to articulate them, or even want to. He may be concerned about grandpa or feel conflicted that all this attention is going in his direction. He could feel stigma that grandpa seems different from his friends’ grandpas. He may be uncomfortable that he is forgetful, acts strange at times and even seems unfriendly. Provide as much reassurance as possible that he still loves you, even as things are changing. And it’s extremely important to acknowledge his feelings of loss and grief.
Your grandchild may be confused by his grandpa’s mood swings. A good analogy to explain these sudden relapses and mood swings could be by explaining how a radio works. Most children might understand that when a radio can’t clearly pick up a signal, what comes through might be a little muddled. In the same way, sometimes the patient can’t clearly perceive his thoughts, which results in confusion, memory loss, or irritability.
Preparing your grandchild for the future is also important. Help him anticipate that there will be good days and bad days. Remind him that he is loved no matter what the future holds. Let him know that because of the disease, Grandpa won’t remember names and will forget things. You can also share with him that it’s best not to correct him, because this will upset and frustrate him.
If you notice that your grandchild is withdrawing or has trouble talking about Grandpa, try to open the conversation. Sharing some of your own feelings with your grandchild will normalize his nervousness, sadness and anger. Be aware that his emotions may be expressed in indirect ways, such as getting headaches or paying less attention to his schoolwork
Children’s Books Help Explain
To boost your grandchild’s understanding of what’s going on, you may want to use additional tools such as children’s books that tell stories of a loved one having Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association has created videos specifically for kids and teens that educate them on the stages of the disease; how the brain is affected with thinking, memory, and feelings; and how moods or personalities can change. Three children’s books to help your grandchild understand the disease are: What’s Happening to Grandpa?, The Memory Box and Grandpa Has Changed.
And in the midst of all this change and sadness, there are still many activities your grandchild and his grandfather can enjoy together. They can take walks in the neighborhood, garden or plant flowers together, or read a favorite book or story. Looking at photographs together and talking about Grandpa’s interests and his life will help your grandchild understand him more as a person. They can also listen to music or sing songs together. Demonstrations of affection and love are healing and powerful communicators for all generations, no matter the challenges we are going through. Giving hugs and holding hands can happen at any stage of the disease.
From your clear explanations and frequent reassurance, your grandchild will better understand what is happening with his grandpa and know that you are all in this challenge together. You will anticipate difficulties together and your grandchild will know that despite all the pressures you face, you still love him, even though you will be sad, frustrated and overwhelmed at times. A joint focus on what Grandpa can still do, along with patience and understanding, will help your grandchild get through this extremely challenging time.