Helping Children Understand Grandparent’s Dementia

  • My sons were fortunate to grow up in the city where their grandparents also lived. They know the spoiling that grandparents can do; the time and special love grandparents can give. In the best situations, kids and their grandparents can form a unique bond.


    My youngest son, Adam, was always a "Grandpa's boy." When my parents would come to visit and I'd be holding my son as I answered the door, he'd immediately lean toward my dad. He wanted Grandpa to hold him.


    The bond they had was tight and lasting. The night my dad died in my arms at the nursing home, after ten years of mental hell brought on by a failed brain surgery, my son was at home doing homework on his computer. As I walked in the house, exhausted from my long vigil, Adam's first words were, "Grandpa died, didn't he?"

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    I said, "Yes, he did."


    Adam said, "I know. He stopped by to see me on his way."


    Before the last decade of Dad's life, when he was still "himself," he had a wonderful relationship with the kids. My sons didn't have to witness the slow mental decline with their grandfather, because his dementia was instant. The horror on their faces when they first visited him after the surgery, and saw what had happened to him, is burned into my memory. Which is worse - long and slow or instant? There's really no good answer for that.


    The boys did witness slower dementia develop with the grandmothers and a great uncle. Alzheimer's and other dementia can be frightening to witness for anyone, but children - with the inexperienced world view they have - can have unique and frightening responses when they see a beloved elder's personality change.


    A Mayo Clinic article on, "Alzheimer's affects everyone in the family - including the kids" is very helpful. Parents can use all the help they can get assisting their children as they travel the dementia path with beloved grandparents.


    Mayo's excellent article helps parents anticipate their child's questions. Some you may think of, such as "Is Grandma crazy?" But would you have thought your child would wonder if he or she is at fault?


    We can't forget our children's pain, even though we are dealing with our own. One of the hardest parts of being a parent is that during some of your most painful moments in life, you know you not only need to handle your own pain, but you also need to stay by your children and try to read their fears. As the article states, you need to stay involved and not just focus on the elder - or even on yourself. Just because a child isn't "acting up" or crying or outwardly showing distress doesn't mean he or she isn't suffering. It doesn't mean the child doesn't have questions.


    I've written two posts here on Our Alzheimer's about children's books that can help you through some of these situations. Reviews of these books can be found on A Classic Children's Book on Aging and Memory and Children's Books That Deal With Alzheimer's.


    These books and others can help, but nothing takes the place of time with your child. Give the children openings to ask questions. Help them feel it's safe to do so. And check out the good information on the Mayo Clinic site. It may give you more ideas to help get your kids through this tough time.


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Published On: March 24, 2008