Alzheimer’s disease can be confusing as is, but for young children it can be even more difficult to understand. Alzheimer's disease unfortunately affects not just the individual but the whole family. That’s why it’s important to talk with children about the disease as soon as possible and help them to understand. Open communication is essential. However, the information provided needs to be age-appropriate.
When talking to a younger child about this diagnosis, they might not grasp the term Alzheimer's disease. I recommend keeping the dialogue very simple. Let them know that Alzheimer’s disease is a disease involving the brain. You could say “Sometimes people like your grandpa or uncle have problems with remembering things like where they live, what they ate for breakfast, or even your name.” You should mention that the person with Alzheimer’s disease is sick, but provide reassurance that this is not contagious. Then, if the children appear to understand what was explained, you could prepare them for some of the changes they might see in the person with Alzheimer's disease by going over symptoms and how to handle them appropriately. The symptoms I would review would be both memory and behavioral changes. You could let the child know that a person with Alzheimer’s disease might display anger, sadness, or other changes in how they act to others, including the child. It is not that the person is “mad” at the child; rather, “it is the disease speaking.” I would not explain the stages of the disease process because that is too complex for this age group. Review ways that the child could be there for the individual with Alzheimer’s disease such as, listening, holding hands, singing songs together, and showing love. I would suggest having the children read age-appropriate books on the disease and take advantage of other educational resources. One such book is “What’s Happening to Grandpa?” by Maria Shriver.
Lastly, some important tips for discussing the diagnosis with children include:
- Allow the child to express his or her feelings and respond with love and support
- Let youngsters know you are there for them
- Watch for non-verbal signs that a youngster is having hard time, such as poor grades and consistent complaints of “not feeling well”
- Consider play therapy for young children or supportive psychotherapy for teens to cope with grief and depression