Alzheimer’s changes the lives of everyone it touches. It can be particularly difficult for children and teens to understand the disease, its symptoms and what to expect.
You might feel scared to even bring the topic up to children, especially young ones. You might want to protect them from the truth, or feel overwhelmed at how to explain the disease.
But remember, children at any age can sense stress and conflict in their environment. It’s important to pass along your knowledge and understanding – in an age-appropriate way – to help address their concerns and avoid erroneous assumptions.
Be upfront, honest.
Giving children and teens information about Alzheimer’s disease can help them cope with its impact on their lives. When deciding what information a child receives and how that information is presented, it’s important to consider these three things: the child’s age; the type of relationship the child has with the person; and, the child’s part, if any, in caring for the person with Alzheimer’s disease.
For example, a child who will be living in the same house as a close family member with Alzheimer’s will need more information than a child with an out-of-state relative with Alzheimer’s who they see once a year.
For children of all ages, it’s important to be upfront and honest when answering questions. But this doesn’t mean young children need all the scientific details or theories about Alzheimer’s cause. For example, you might tell a young child, “Grandma has trouble finding memories in her head,” or, “Grandma still loves you, but has trouble showing you.”
The National Institute on Aging says many younger children will look to adults to see how to act around the person with Alzheimer’s. It’s good to show children they can still interact with the person and enjoy fun things together. Here are some of the NIA’s suggestions for activities that could help both the child and person with Alzheimer’s:
- A walk outside
- Doing simple arts and crafts
- Playing, singing or dancing to music
- Reading stories out loud
- Looking at photo albums
Since they are more capable of understanding the diagnosis, teenagers should hear more details, including treatment options and even how long their loved one is expected to live. It may also be helpful to include them in conversations about care and big choices like moving a person with Alzheimer’s into their home. While you might not always follow their opinions, it can help if they feel their voice is heard.
Other Reactions and Resources:
Below are some common reactions children or teens may have or misconceptions parents may need to be careful to dispel:
- Reassure children that Alzheimer’s disease is not contagious.
- Talk to older teens about the genetics related to the disease and possibilities for inheritance. They may fear that parents, other relatives or they themselves might be diagnosed with the disease.
- When behavior changes, reassure children their family member still loves them and is not angry at them.
- Acknowledge their feelings, including negative ones like frustration and guilt for being angry with the person who is sick or being jealous of the attention they receive.
- Don’t force a child to visit a person who has Alzheimer’s. Explain how those visits can still be appreciated and helpful, though, even if the person can’t express it.
For more information, consider these resources:
The Alzheimer’s Association directs a portion of its website directly toward children and teens. It includes videos for each group answering the following questions: What is Alzheimer’s disease; what can I expect and how can I deal with it; is it me or is it the disease; and, how can I help and what’s out there to help me? There are also resources for parents and teachers, printable handouts explaining the disease and links to other resources.
The National Institute on Aging has a list of resources for Alzheimer’s information for teens and children, ranging from children’s books to research.