Explaining Grandma - Helping Your Children Understand Alzheimer's and Dementia

When I was a little girl I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother. I called her “Mamaw” and she was the best storyteller, an excellent fryer of chicken, and one of my biggest fans. She wasn’t traditionally educated, but she was a voracious reader who introduced me to Macbeth at the tender age of four and habitually read me to sleep with the terrifying tales of Edgar Allen Poe. Which may explain some of my more morbid tastes in books and films.


My Mamaw did a lot of sitting. She would sit in her easy chair and watch television and chain smoke cigarettes and eventually, her mind started to leave her. She would get confused. She would get agitated. She came to visit my family when we lived in Baltimore when I was about 9 years old. She broke her hip and she was never the same after that. I didn’t know it at the time but she had the early stages of Alzheimer’s. That terrible disease was laying waste to what was a brilliant and fruitful mind.


Fast forward a few years. I was 12 and my family lived in Massachusetts. My Mamaw came to visit us there and she was unrecognizable. She didn’t understand where she was. She didn’t know who I was. In essence, she was gone and a stranger with Mamaw’s face was left. I was old enough and smart enough to understand that there was something wrong, but a younger child may not have understood. I recently read some literature published by a company that manages several Atlanta, GA assisted living facilities and was inspired to share. So here are some helpful tips on explaining this heartbreaking condition to your children.


Don’t Pretend It’s Not There


Even very little children can detect changes in the people they love. Confusion, combined with the symptoms and behavior of a person suffering Dementia or Alzheimer’s can be devastating to a child. Explaining simply that Grandma or Grandpa is sick and the sickness is what is making them act that way is the best course of action, no matter what. It will keep the child from resenting the sick family member and from resenting you for not telling them the truth, and it will let them know that the behavior is in no way their fault.


Set a Good Example


Your child will take cues from you on how to react to their ailing grandparent. If you are patient, kind and gentle with them your child will be too. Spending time around young people can be very beneficial to someone sick with Dementia or Alzheimer’s, so nurture that in the most appropriate ways. If you notice that the child’s presence upsets their grandparent, you have to deal with that accordingly.


Keep the Lines of Communication Open


It is likely that your child will have a lot of questions during this time. Make sure you answer them as honestly and clearly as possible in age and situation appropriate ways. Ask your child how they feel and listen to them. Talking about their feelings, and yours, is a great way to deal with any family tragedy.


Know When To Seek Professional Help


If your child is despondent, seems totally unaffected, or avoids the family member or family interaction in general, you know something is wrong. Some children will display signs of anxiety like nightmares, irrational fears, attention-seeking behavior and more. Other children may get depressed and cry a lot. Some children will get obsessively involved in the care of their ailing grandparent. If you see any of these behaviors, or others that disturb you, it might be a good idea to talk to a child psychologist to help your child develop some coping skills that will help them through this difficult situation.


All families encounter sadness, illness and tragedy, but a family member with Dementia or Alzheimer’s is truly heartbreaking for everyone involved. It’s hard to know what to do with yourself, much less your child, but remember that it is important to think about everyone involved.


Elizabeth Downing is a freelance writer who lives in, and loves, Richmond. She was inspired to write this post both by her personal experiences and the folks involved with Atlanta, GA assisted living at Dogwood Forest. Her surviving grandmother resides in assisted living in Williamsburg, VA and is suffering the pains of Dementia.


Photo credit- http://www.flickr.com/photos/txberiu/2792229509


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