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Talking to Children About Their Elderly Grandparents’ Behavior Changes

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenAugust 8, 2016
Talking to Children About Their Elderly Grandparents' Behavior Changes

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is difficult for everyone involved, but it can be particularly confusing for grandchildren watching their adoring grandparents’ personalities change before their eyes.

Learn how to talk to children about cognitive disease, so they can still interact lovingly with family members who have the disease.

The Importance of Talking to Children About Their Grandparents’ Behavior Changes

“Knowledge is power” definitely trumps the “ignorance is bliss” concept when it comes to grandchildren learning about their elderly grandparents’ Alzheimer’s or dementia decline. Many families choose to shelter their kids from the horrific disease, rather than educate them and let them continue to interact with their elderly loved one. I have personally experienced the heartache of losing a grandmother to dementia, and am very thankful I was able to spend time with her in her latter years, even though she no longer knew who I was.

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Having an open and honest conversation about how Grandma or Grandpa might be acting is important for kids to process and understand behavioral changes. Pediatric social worker, Kris Nelson, comments:

“If you don’t tell children what’s going on, they’re going to make up their own story. You can’t protect your child by just not talking about it.”

Nelson discusses that, rather than ignore the problem or cut off ties grandchildren may have with their grandparents, you might want to consider these steps on how to help your child cope with their aging grandparents changing:

1. Sit Down and Chat

It’s important to be considerate and explain why grandparents are acting differently. By asking open-ended questions, such as, “Have you ever known someone who forgets things a lot?” or “How did you feel about Grandma being crabby last Sunday?” can help ease your child. By conversing, you can not only figure out what’s worrying your child, but you may also be able to help them articulate and unload their worries that they might be suppressing about their beloved grandparent.

2. Keep Explanations Simple

Parents can give too much information when trying to prevent a child’s anxiety. Instead of unloading on your child, aim for incremental conversations that can help your child discuss their feelings while you help ease their concerns. For example, instead of telling your child that Grandma suffered from a stroke and will new be drooling or seem as though she’s staring into space, you might approach the situation like this: “We’re going to visit Grandma, who might seem a little quiet today, but some expert doctors are helping her feel better, so let’s give her a hug and tell her how much we love her.”

As your child ages, you can provide him/her more details, as needed. You can gauge the situation and decide what’s best and what your child can handle.

3. Find Age-Appropriate Books

Books can be a wonderful, educational-guide that helps give children insight into tough situations. Max Wallack, a young caregiver to his great-grandmother, discusses his unique situation in his book, “Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear In The Refrigerator?” about watching his grandmother transform from Alzheimer’s. He comments, “The disease has brought heartbreak to many families, which is why I want to help educate families and caregivers. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is invaluable, and continuing to spend time with grandparents, even when they suffer from dementia, is important.”

Finding age-appropriate books can help children understand confusing changes. A quick search in your local library or bookstore can bring up many excellent children’s books on Alzheimer’s and dementia.

4. Focus on the Positive

If a grandparent is not as with-it as they used to be, that’s a real loss for a child who has bonded with them and is used to spending quality time with them. If beloved visits to the ice cream store and park are no longer possible, you can shift to activities your child can still do with the grandparents, such as looking at books together, playing card games, or going through photo albums. By shifting focus, positive interactions are still possible. Your child might also want to do something creative or thoughtful for the grandparent, such as making a card, painting a picture or writing a poem.

5. Involve Kids in Care

According to Dr. Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is second in emotional importance only to the relationship between parent and child. Children benefit when grandparents are involved in their lives. But grandparents also enjoy benefits from the relationship with their grandchildren.

A recent study by Boston College found that “an emotionally close relationship between grandparent and grandchildren is associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations.”

6. Acknowledge That Every Child is Different

While some children will want to be involved and help care for their grandparent, others may not. They might feel confused or frightened by the situation. Give your child an option to help, but don’t force them to be someone they are not. With time, they may ease into helping or want to be involved more.

How has your family dealt with talking to your children about their grandparents’ behavior changes? Share your stories and suggestions with us in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen

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