Talking to Children about Alzheimer's Disease

Grandmother reading to child

Alzheimer's disease affects more than 5 million people in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, and someone is diagnosed with the disease, which is characterized by memory loss and cognitive decline, every 67 seconds. Experts believe that these numbers could double or triple in the next 20 years as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Although most people are diagnosed after age 65, a growing number experience early onset Alzheimer's disease, which is typically seen in people as young as 50.

With these statistics, chances are high that Alzheimer's disease will touch your family in some way. You might feel sadness and worry over the changes you see in a beloved parent. If you're part of the sandwich generation and a primary caregiver, you might experience financial, emotional, and physical stress as you attend to your loved ones needs. Alzheimer's disease affects the whole family, including children.

How to Talk to Kids about Alzheimer's Disease

As parents, we often wonder how to help our children understand the effects of Alzheimer's disease on their grandparents or close family members when diagnosed. Although every family is unique, you'll probably need to address the question of Alzheimer's directly and honestly. Work as a family to develop a plan for caring for your loved one. Doing so not only reduces stress, but creates an environment in which our children can learn empathy, teamwork, and compassion. Below are a few ideas for how to talk to kids about Alzheimer's disease:

  • When it comes to talking to kids about serious illnesses of family members, talk with them sooner rather than later. Even very young children intuitively pick up on stress or changes in family dynamics that can come as a result of a diagnosis of Alzheimer. Children are also prone to making misinterpretations, and may assume the situation is much worse than it really is. "Its much better for you to shape a positive message than for children to make false assumptions," said Dr. Richard E. Powers, geriatric psychiatrist and neuropathologist in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Consider your child's age and developmental level. A young child might have trouble comprehending the abstract concept of cognitive decline. Additionally, young children might not have a well-formed memory of how a loved one behaved before, said Powers, who serves as medical director for the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Young children are likely to have fewer expectations about how a family member should or shouldn't behave.
  • Offer simple, direct explanations about the effects of Alzheimer's disease, said Powers. Be positive and don't over dramatize. For example, you might say something like, "Grandma has something called Alzheimer's disease. This means that she cant remember things as well as she used to. Were going to take care of her and were going to take care of you too."
  • Listen as much as you talk, suggested clinical psychologist, Daria M. Brezinski of Charlottesville, Virginia. Ask your child what he knows about Alzheimer's disease and if hes noticed anything different about your loved one. "Children are often exposed to more information than they need or can handle," Brezinski said. Listen and base your conversation on your child's needs.
  • Read children's books about Alzheimer's disease. Well-written books can help young children understand abstract concepts. The Alzheimer's Foundation of America recommends: Still My Grandma by Veronique Van Den Abeele; Always My Grandpa by Linda Scacco; Striped Shirts and Flowered Pants by Barbara Schnurbush.
  • Allow your child to express feelings of sadness, anger, or fear. At the same time, as loved ones and grandparent's roles in a child's life changes due to Alzheimer's, make sure to point out the special things your child can still do with grandma or grandpa. For example, maybe Grandma cant play board games the way she once did, but she might love to listen to music or watch your child play.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease brings challenges and changes for families, but it doesn't have to be catastrophic, said Powers. Open and honest communication can help you navigate this difficult time successfully. For more information, register for Bright Horizons webinar on how to care for loved ones with Alzheimer's to be held on Thursday, June 12, 2014 from 3:00-4:00 p.m. ET (or visit our webinar archive page after that date).

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Grandmother reading to child