Alzheimer’s disease can be confusing and scary for anyone, but for a child or teen, it is important to talk with them as soon as possible so they begin to understand how the disease might change the relationship they have previously shared with the loved one. Richard Powers, MD, associate professor of neurology and pathology and spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said, “It’s important to explain that while grandpa may not remember your name, he still loves you as much as the first day he laid eyes on you, and you need to reach out to the part of the person that’s still intact.”
When breaking the news, consider the age of the child and modifying the conversation to make it age-appropriate. The following tips can assist you with that:
Younger Children: Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD, a psychologist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, said, “I recommend parents say something like, ‘Grandpa is having problems with his memory or he is unable to think as well as he used to think, so sometimes we’ll have to help him with his thinking or his remembering.'” If the child seems to be understanding what is being said, then explain some of the symptoms and how to handle them.
Teens: Share details of both the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and the treatment options available, since teens will be able to understand more. Dr. Powers said, “Often, teenagers will end up playing a role in caring for grandpa or grandma, so it is important for them to know as much as possible up front.”
Reassure them that it is not an infectious disease and answer their questions and acknowledge their feelings. Some ways that children and teens may react include sadness and a sense of loss, confusion or fear, worry that Alzheimer’s is contagious, or their parents may get it, anger or frustration because they have to repeat questions, remorse over their anger or frustration, or embarrassment from friends if the Alzheimer’s patient lives at home with them.
These emotions might be acted out by complaining of physical discomfort, like a stomachache, doing poorly in school, spending more time away from home, or refusing to have friends over.
Parents should show their child support and love during this time. Engaging in family activities, like sorting through old photos, may help reinforce the connection to the loved one.