Alzheimer’s and dementia are difficult to understand, especially for children. The holidays can make it even more challenging to handle questions or concerns from children about a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Children may become frustrated, confused, afraid or uncomfortable, and the loved one may become agitated, aggressive or inappropriate. Many families find themselves in this situation, as 1 in 8 older Americans has Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. I recommend having an open and honest dialogue with children about memory loss, especially before visiting family members living with Alzheimer’s.
I always suggest that families come up with visiting topics ahead of time. Children can bring artwork they made for the grandparent to discuss, look through pictures, bake cookies and decorate them together, talk about what they’re doing in school, share a special talent like reading poetry, and playing the piano or dancing. If it is a positive and structured visit, it will be enjoyable for the children and the grandparent.
The connection between grandparents and grandchildren is strong, and interaction is meaningful for everyone involved. However, if a child wants to leave, it is best to end the visit. To compensate for the cognitive deficit, loved ones living with Alzheimer’s are more in tune with body language and emotions, and they will sense when a child is scared or uncomfortable. Keep visits to 30 minutes or less to help avoid overstimulation and changes in the loved ones’ mood.
Often, children may ask why a grandparent doesn’t remember them, or children may want to correct the grandparent. I suggest that parents prepare for these kinds of questions.
If children ask why grandma doesn’t remember them, it is best to explain that she cannot always remember things, but she knows the child is special, and this does not mean that she does not love the child. If a grandparent calls the child the wrong name, it is best to go along with that, instead of trying to make a correction. Trying to provide a reality orientation for the grandparent draws attention to the cognitive deficit, and can lead to frustration and anger. Then, the children think they did something wrong. By explaining that the grandparent’s mind is not well, and by reiterating that the grandparent loves the child, it can help prevent children from blaming themselves.
I also recommend exposing younger children to seniors to help reduce fear they may experience when visiting a loved one in an assisted living community.
Jamie Lopez is vice president of Health Care for Constant Care Family Management, the property management company for Autumn Leaves memory care communities. Autumn Leaves of Sugarloaf is currently under construction in Suwanee.