My sons were young teens at the time my dad underwent brain surgery that backfired, leaving him with dementia – overnight. Dad remained loving, but he did get frustrated and was perpetually confused. To see this caring, intelligent man so markedly and irreparably changed nearly tore out the hearts of adult family members. For the grandchildren, the effect was multiplied by their lack of experience in life's tragedies.
The slow decline of Alzheimer's
Our family's introduction to dementia was different than the typical case. Most people with dementia will decline slowly, giving loved ones time to adjust. However, no time frame makes accepting dementia easy.
Whether the grandparents live with the family, in their own home or in a nursing home, the grandchildren are bound to be affected by the changes they see. Children often feel guilty for bad things happening in the family, even when there is no logic to their thinking. They will notice your pain and may also feel guilty for that, as well.
Children can be frightened by the changes in the grandparent who was once gentle and loving, but could now have become cranky and occasionally downright mean and abusive. How we, as parents, handle the changes in our own parents can affect how well our children handle the changes. But each child is different and each set of circumstances is different. So where to you start when it's time to explain?
Tips for helping kids cope with a grandparent's frightening personality changes
Most children understand that when searching for a radio station within range, we experience static when a signal can't be picked up clearly. Correlating the image of this static with the confusion in a grandparent's mind may help a child understand why the grandparent acts confused and frustrated. Brain signals get muddled.
If Alzheimer's or other dementia has turned Grandpa into an irritable or abusive person, make sure the child understands that he or she didn't cause this behavior. Nor is it Grandpa's choice to act mean. Grandpa's behavior is caused by his disease.
Find age appropriate books to help the child feel less alone. A quick search in your local book store or online should bring up a number of excellent children's books on Alzheimer's.
Support from peers
If there is no support group in your community for children with grandparents who have dementia, talk to their school counselor or give your local Alzheimer's organization a call to see if a group can be started. In this way children are no different than adults. They need to know they aren't alone in coping with this disturbing turn of events.
Your child will likely feel embarrassed by the grandparent's behavior, especially if their friends are around. Face it. You may have some embarrassment issues yourself. This is an opportunity to help your child know that you are all still learning how to cope.
Involve kids in care
My sons learned that bringing their musical instruments to the nursing home to play for their grandpa was a way that they could visit without the discomfort of trying to have a coherent conversation with him. The man who taught his grandson how to play chess was now often talking to someone who existed only in his brain. However music was soothing and always appreciated. This showed the kids that they still had a bond with their grandfather.
Each child is different
Some kids will be able to pitch in and help care for the grandparent, instinctively understanding how to sooth or help. But others will be too confused or frightened to have more than basic contact. Give kids options to help, but don't force children to be someone they are not.
The gift of touch
Again, don't force a child to hug or kiss a grandparent if they are afraid. But if possible, encourage some kind of touch. Holding the grand parent's hand or giving a brief hug may help the grandchild understand that this is still Grandpa even though he's changed.
No abuse allowed
If the grandparent is in a rage, gently say that "we will leave grandpa with other help until he's better," and then remove the child from the room. If your family and the elder live together, tell the child that he or she need not take abuse. Explain why grandpa acts abusive and that it's not personal, but that the child need not accept that abuse. Tell the child to leave the room and bring adult help.
Get support for yourself
If your struggle to accept your parents' condition is overwhelming you, you won't be able to help your child as much as you'd like. Getting support for yourself online, through a group or with a counselor may help you gather the strength to help your child.
Pain in life is inevitable, but seeing a parent or grandparent change because of dementia seems particularly cruel. Support your child, get support for yourself, and look to experts like the Alzheimer's Association for more tips. Most importantly, let your child know that the grandparent can't help having this disease and that it's no one's fault.