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Helping Children Understand Alzheimer’s

Dealing with Alzheimer’s can be stressful for everyone involved but for a child the effects can be especially difficult to understand. The unusual behavior exhibited by a familiar adult can be confusing and frightening to a child so it is important to help them process what’s happening.

It may be a parent’s instinct to protect their child, but insulating them from the truth about a loved one with dementia can create problems of its own. Children can often sense the tension in a household and not knowing what’s wrong can be emotionally distressing. Being unexpectedly confronted with an unpleasant incident can be traumatic if they are unprepared.

Like adults, children can react emotionally in many ways to changes in a loved one’s personality and behavior. There will be sadness and anger that the illness has affected someone they care about. They might worry that you or another family member might get it. They might become angry or impatient with symptoms affecting the person or even embarrassed by them.

It is important to be comforting and understanding to all reactions.

It will be reassuring to hear you explain what the problem is and help them to understand what is happening and why. When children know what to expect they may be better equipped to deal with the changes.

They will have questions so explain honestly and in simple terms that your child, depending on their age, will comprehend:

  • Why the changes are occurring. That it is a disease and that the loved one is ill even though they might not look sick.
  • It’s not contagious and that neither of you will catch it.
  • Reassure your child that no one is to blame.
  • That the loved one eventually may not remember names or places and could forget incidents.
  • That being upset, impatient or frustrated can also be part of the illness. Children may find it a relief to know that it is not really directed at them.
  • That some days will be better than others.

Things to for you to keep in mind:

  • Seeing how you cope with the situation will help a child deal with it themselves, behaviorally and emotionally.
  • Children can have a calming effect and improve the mood of someone struggling with Alzheimer’s. Think of fun or interesting activities they both might enjoy sharing.
  • Depending on the stage of development of the disease, Alzheimer’s can sometimes make your loved one’s behavior uncharacteristic and unpredictable or their judgment unsound, so the presence of another adult might be necessary.
  • Be prepared that there may come a time when your loved one no longer shows interest in your children.
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