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When a close family member has dementia it affects the entire family, especially children. It is difficult to know how to prepare kids for the changes they will see, but it is necessary. Often parents feel the need to protect their children, but it can leave children confused. When children feel like a family is working together and staying strong through difficult times, it gives them not only the security they need in the moment, but life skills that will last a lifetime.
- Be honest- Often children will feel the stress of the adults around them, so it is better to explain dementia early. Be clear, calm, and age appropriate. Talk about the brain and use real life examples to demonstrate how a person’s memory works. Explain that grandma is the same person inside, but has a sickness that effects how her brain works.
- Validate feelings- Children will have a range of feelings and it is important to let them express them. Often it is easier for younger children who do not remember how their grandparent use to be. Younger children tend to accept others as they are and don’t judge behavior that is inappropriate. Older children will struggle when grandma cannot remember their name or other such behaviors, but it is important for them to know that she still feels the same love for them.
- Look for signs of anxiety- Anxiety can show itself in many different ways. Children may have nightmares, demonstrate attention seeking behaviors, start losing concentration at school, and even become overly distant or push away. Be watchful for such signs.
- Find ways for children to help- While they need to know there is not a cure for dementia, you can do things to help the person. The best way for children to help is to spend time with the family member and demonstrate a spirit of love in their own way. Each child has a unique way they can help, whether it is spending time doing an activity together (painting or completing a puzzle) or helping with chores around their house (raking leaves or dusting). Your family may have to think of creative ways to include the grandparent, such as making name tags for large family gatherings or create memory photo albums to share during visits.
- Continue the conversation and stay positive- Keep the conversation going in your family about dementia and encourage kids to ask questions. If grandpa acts in a strange way, talk about it and help your children work through their feelings. It is normal to feel embarrassed or even frightened. Direct your attention to what your loved one still can do and focus on that.
The role reversal, taking care of someone who used to take care of you, can be difficult for children to understand, but it is important to communicate that families help one another. Is important to remember the past, as well as embrace new ways to make memories.
Did you Know? While it is difficult for children to understand what is happening to grandma, it can often be just as difficult for parents to explain. If you are having trouble explaining dementia to your children, there are many children’s books written to help you tackle the topic. The National Institute on Aging provides a list of resources to help.
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