Mixing Young and Old: How Children and Alzheimer's Patients Can Benefit from One Another

Editor's Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Eric J. Hall.

For school children around the country, the lazy days of summer are nearing an end. They'll soon be engulfed in their busy days filled with homework and extra-curricular activities. What better time than the present then to engage youngsters in something really meaningful-like spending time with a family member or friend who is living with Alzheimer's disease?

Intergenerational interaction can be extremely meaningful for both the younger generation and those with Alzheimer's disease or a related illness. For the former, the effects can be long-lasting. For the latter, these special times can be significant even if just in the moment. For both, we're talking about improving quality of life.

Reports from the field indicate that more and more dementia-related organizations, such as those with adult day programs, have implemented formal intergenerational activities-with positive results. Even a decade ago, The Gerontologist cited the outcome of a program in Beachwood, OH that united older adults with dementia with preschool children in one-on-one Montessori activities. It concluded that "older adults with dementia can still serve as effective mentors and teachers to children in an appropriately structured setting."

I was lucky enough to observe this in action at one of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's member organizations, the Community Programs Center of Long Island, which operates its Day Haven Adult Day Services program in Port Jefferson, NY. Young boys and girls sat side-by-side with clients, coloring and playing games. It was the smiles, though, on the faces of young and old that really left an imprint.

Informal visits can be just as powerful. We asked some youngsters once to tell us about their visits with their grandparents who are living with dementia. The responses were heartfelt, like this one from a seven-year-old about her grandfather: "I give him hugs and kisses. I play ball with him. My grandmother, my sister and I think we're his medicine."

Of course, there is no doubt that children might be frightened, overwhelmed or saddened when interacting with someone with dementia, especially when the disease hits close to home. It's up to family caregivers and/or professionals to help ease the experience so that it will be shed in a positive light. Age-appropriate education and activities, reassurance and really listening to a child's feelings can go a long way.

With young children, keep explanations simple; older children are capable of understanding more. Regardless of the child's age, all explanations should be based on truth. Children need to be told that the person is ill and be given basic knowledge about the disease and its symptoms. They also need to know that they cannot "catch" Alzheimer's disease by being near someone who has it. If the person does something to hurt a child's feelings, rely on the statement, "It's the disease talking, not your grandma."

Determine how you can involve children in age-appropriate activities and, with teenagers, even some caregiving tasks. Coloring, playing card games, singing songs, supervised cooking and meal preparation, looking through photo albums all work well.

By giving youngsters the taste of these interactions during the final weeks of summer, hopefully they will want to squeeze in time for the young-old connection during their busy school year as well.

These will be the times to remember-long after summer is gone.

The HealthCentral Editorial Team
Meet Our Writer
The HealthCentral Editorial Team

HealthCentral's team of editors based in New York City and Arlington, VA, collaborates with patient advocates, medical professionals, and health journalists worldwide to bring you medically vetted information and personal stories from people living with chronic conditions to help you navigate the best path forward with your health—no matter your starting point.