Helping Children Understand Alzheimer's Disease


When a loved one has Alzheimer's disease, children may feel frightened, confused and traumatized. They may find that a grandparent doesn't remember them anymore, yells, cries uncontrollably or even disrobes in front of them.

How parents handle the situation affects how kids view the disease and how – or if – they interact with their grandparents. Deanna Lueckenotte, author of "Alzheimer's Days Gone By," believes children should not be shielded.

A former executive director of an Alzheimer's assisted living residence in Texas, and now an independent consultant and speaker, Ms. Lueckenotte told that families should talk openly about the disease and how it impacts their loved one.

Tips for Talking with Children about Alzheimer's Disease

Be honest. Explain what Alzheimer's Disease is. Depending on the children's ages, parents can go into more or fewer details. With younger children, explain that grandma or grandpa's brain is sick. Say that just as children get colds and tummy aches, older adults may get an illness that causes them to act differently and to forget things. They may look the same on the outside, but inside their brains are changing.

Be open. "Kids notice more than we give them credit for," Ms. Lueckenotte says. "It's important not to shelter a grandchild from the realities of Alzheimer's. Open dialogue make the disease less scary." Encourage kids to talk about the disease and ask questions. Talk about what they're feeling and what worries them. In the earlier stages, when the grandparent is still able, he or she should also speak openly about the disease and answer any questions the grandchild has.

Let children know they aren't to blame. When grandpa yells at kids or accuses them of stealing, kids tend to internalize it. They think that they did something wrong. Help them to understand that it isn't them; it's the disease talking. Tell them that grandpa can't remember things and that scares him and makes him upset.

Go with the flow. When Ms. Lueckenotte was a child and her grandmother, who had Alzheimer's, fantasized or talked about things that weren't happening, the prevailing philosophy was to try to bring her back to reality. But Ms. Lueckenotte doesn't agree with that. "If grandma thinks she is at the family farm in Kansas, correcting or arguing only causes confusion, fear and anger. Park your reality at the curb, and enter theirs. If they see purple dancing elephants, you see purple dancing elephants." Explain to kids that it's an opportunity to use their imaginations.

Include kids in the routine. Letting children be a part of daily routines helps them be less afraid of the changes in behavior brought on by Alzheimer's. At home, ask young children to help the grandparent with an easy chore such as dusting or raking leaves. If the grandparent lives at an assisted living facility, plan simple activities that grandparents and grandchildren can do together such as games, puzzles or gardening.

Get help when you need it. Whether you reach out to your family members, a medical professional, or a caregiver support group, it is important to remember that there is plenty of support available to you.

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Good article. Recently I had to talk to grandchildren about another grandparent's alzheimer's. I was pretty blunt with what I said. Then I second-guessed myself. But my support group told me I did a good job.