How can you help children understand Alzheimer’s disease? For anyone, understanding Alzheimer’s is tough on so many levels. It’s a disease that attacks the brain, destroying neurons and robbing an individual of memories as well as physical abilities and thought processes. But will understanding the neurological and biological processes help children understand Alzheimer’s? Will knowing that it is the disease that makes grandma act the way she does make a difference to a six year old? A child will notice the behavioral changes that dementia causes in a grandparent, and it can be very upsetting. Ignoring the problem, not taking the initiative to explain to your daughter why Grandma can’t remember her name, is not an option. It’s up to you to help your children understand the effects that Alzheimer’s is having on someone they love.
When my oldest daughter, Jackie, was just three or four years old, my uncle Victor died of emphysema. While he was still alive I took my family to visit; I knew we wouldn’t have many more opportunities. Holly and I thought it was important for Jackie to come, and we did our best to prepare her for what she would see. The ravages of emphysema are not pretty. Vic was in a hospital bed in the living room of his small, suburban house. The living room provided more room for the medical equipment that was necessary to keep him breathing and comfortable. The larger room also made it possible for small groups of people to visit. There were six or seven or us, including my aunt Eula, Vic’s wife. We sat on chairs arranged in a crescent to one side of the bed and visited as we might have in happier times. We included Vic in our conversation as much as possible, but his disease made it hard for him to breathe, let alone talk much.
At one point in our visit, Jackie slid her chair over right next to the bed, sat down, and started a one-on-one with her great-uncle Vic. No hesitation, no fear, no trepidation. That was a long time ago, and I don’t remember how long their conversation lasted, but I know it was ten or fifteen minutes at least.
Vic died soon after our visit, but I am sure that Jackie’s authentic gesture, her compassionate act made a big difference to him. It certainly had an effect on the rest of us who were there.
Children often demonstrate profound wisdom and understanding. Explain the medical side of the disease to them in a way and to a degree that they can understand. Make sure your children know Alzheimer’s is a disease, and that the disease is responsible for the forgetfulness and the “strange behavior.” Tell then that Grandma is still Grandma, that Grandpa is still Grandpa. Most importantly, make sure they don’t blame themselves for or feel guilty about anything that grandparents with Alzheimer’s do or say.
Children have an acute ability to make honest, personal connections, and sometimes the best we can do is stay out of their way. Children exist in the moment because they have a short past and care little for the future. People with Alzheimer’s exist in the moment because the dementia is taking away their past and their ability to think about the future. What a perfect pairing.
One of the interesting aspects of Alzheimer’s is that people who have it often become child-like. This concept is a little difficult, but understanding it can make providing appropriate activities easier. It can also make it easier to help children understand Alzheimer’s disease and how it is affecting someone they love. An older person who has dementia can find joy in doing the things that young children enjoy. Some of the games and toys your young children and grandchildren can provide perfect, stage-appropriate stimulation for your parents and grandparents who have Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes elderly people who have dementia can share a toy with a grandchild or a great-grandchild, a toy that is stage-appropriate for both of them. How much better can it get than that. The child is building a better understanding of the disease at the same time he or she is strengthening a bond with Grandma or Grandpa. The elder family member is also strengthening that bond while getting much needed cognitive stimulation. Read more about the benefits that toys like this can have for people who have dementia.
Activities that young people can do with grandparents who have dementia:
- Simple household chores like folding laundry or putting away the silverware. Activities such as this will give both a sense that they are helping.
- Sorting activities are good stimulation and provide learning opportunities for children. These can be “real” like sorting laundry, photographs, or silverware; or made-up like sorting buttons, hardware (nuts and bolts, for example), or coins.
- Jigsaw puzzles with a few large pieces can be at the right level for both of them. Games that aren’t too difficult for either of them. Toys like the Wedgit construction blocks or the Lacing beads pictured on this page.
- Art and craft projects.
- Gardening and yard-work is a marvelous way to spend time together and learn about nature. A grandparent or great-grandparent might have a lot to share with a younger person. This can be as big as caring for a vegetable garden, or as small as re-potting house plants and herbs.
- Make a leaf collection, a shell collection, a pine cone collection, etc. depending on where you live.
- Taking a cue from Kate in the book above, or from Alissa in the film, create a scrapbook, a picture album, a family tree or other tribute to an individual and the family. Reminiscence activities help memory, and children will have stories about their grandparents that they can share with family and others.
- Read together, browse magazines and cut out favorite pictures.
- Depending on the child’s age and the ability of the adult, cooking and baking together can be very rewarding and so much fun.
- Children can massage lotion or special oils into Grandma’s or Grandpa’s hands. This is always nice, and it becomes an even more meaningful way to connect as Alzheimer’s progresses.
Share your ideas in the comment section below – How do you help children understand Alzheimer’s?
Playing together will help children understand Alzheimer’s as they strengthen connections with grandparents.
- Age- and stage-appropriate jigsaw puzzles
- Art and craft projects
- Many of our games can be shared inter-generationally!
- Exercise DVDs—Children love to move! Let them work out with grandparents in front of the TV for a while.
- Activity Books
Please share your ideas about how you help children understand Alzheimer’s disease, and some of the ways that you have made it possible for children to interact meaningfully with grandparents who have Alzheimer’s. Comment below.
September 14, 2009
“The Alzheimer’s Project” wins two Creative Arts Emmy Awards
Two installments of the multi-part HBO documentary “The Alzheimer’s Project,” produced with help from the Alzheimer’s Association and others, won Creative Arts Emmy awards. “The Memory Loss Tapes” was honored for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking, while “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? with Maria Shriver” won for Outstanding Children’s Nonfiction Program.
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