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Senior woman hugging child-Explaining dementia to children

“Why is Grandma Acting Different?”: Explaining a Dementia Diagnosis to a Child

Receiving a dementia diagnosis can be overwhelming—you want to start planning for care, tend to your family member’s emotional needs, and think about the future. You might be so overwhelmed with everything going on that you forget about the children in the family. They need support during this time, too. 

It’s natural to want to protect children and adolescents from difficult situations, to keep them optimistic and innocent for as long as possible. However, children are often perceptive and may notice the tension and fear following a dementia diagnosis or other health concern. As a result, they may start to ask questions like: 

“Why does Grandpa never play ball with me anymore?” 

“Why does Grandma act like she doesn’t know who I am?” 

“Why does she have to move out of her house?” 

Sitting down with children or other young family members and answering these questions honestly can provide comfort during a difficult time and let them know what to expect in the future. Bella Groves wants to be here for you and your family every step of the way, not only offering full-time residential care to family members but also offering dementia resources and education about how to talk with children. 

Explain Honestly and Appropriately 

It won’t help anyone to beat around the bush or try to sugar-coat the situation. You want to be honest and realistic about what is happening so that they can clearly understand.  Using the correct terminology and language can make the words seem less intimidating when someone else says them. 

“Your grandmother has something called Alzheimer’s disease. It is going to change the way she thinks and acts, but she is still the same person.” 

Of course, it can be helpful to tailor your conversation based on the child’s age. For example, when talking to a child under ten, you might tell them that Grandma’s sickness is different from having a fever or an upset tummy. “Unfortunately, Grandma won’t get better, but the good news is that it’s not contagious, so you can give her all the hugs you want.”

If you’re talking to an older child or a teenager, you might explain that dementia affects the brain, slowly interfering with Grandma’s ability to remember, reason, and eventually communicate. 

Encourage Questions

Expect and encourage children to ask questions and be sure they know that there are no wrong ones. Be ready with honest, age-appropriate answers that can help comfort and educate without providing false hope or dishonesty. Here are some questions you might receive and some suggestions on how to answer them. 

“Will Mom and Dad get sick, too?”

Most people who get sick like this are older, like Grandma’s age. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes dementia, but for right now, you don’t need to worry about Mom or Dad getting it. 

“Is this why Grandpa calls me by my uncle’s name?” 

Yes, this disease can make people confused and forget things, like people’s names or events. You might just remind him of your uncle! If he calls you the wrong name again, try not to correct him because this could make him even more confused or frustrated. 

“I saw Grandma yelling at you the other day. Is she mad?” 

Alzheimer’s disease causes changes in how people communicate, and sometimes they might lash out if they feel frustrated or unhappy. But your Grandma still loves me – and you – and was just having a bad day.” 

“How should I act around Grandma now?” 

Even though she may not be able to take you to get ice cream anymore, you can still spend time with her and be there for her. Show her you love her by painting her pictures, telling her stories, or simply sitting next to her on the couch. Her brain may change, but she will always be able to feel your love and appreciate your presence. 

Plan Activities

Your child may fixate on the idea that their grandparent can no longer take them to the movies or play ball with them. While it’s natural and acceptable to mourn the loss of what their grandparent used to do, try to direct their attention to what their grandparent can still do. Planning activities that they can enjoy together can be special and memorable for both the child and their grandparent. Some suggestions include: 

  • Baking cookies
  • Painting or drawing a picture 
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood
  • Doing a jigsaw puzzle  
  • Looking at old family photos or make a scrapbook 
  • Reading a book 
  • Sharing favorite music 

Sharing these small moments can let children know that their grandparent is still the same person they love, even though they are sick. 

Be There For Them. We’re There For You. 

Dementia impacts everybody differently, including children. When explaining to a child that their grandparent or older family member has dementia, the most important thing you can do is be there for them. 

Answer their questions honestly and help them learn as much or as little about the disease as they choose to. Reassure them that whatever they are feeling is normal and that they should feel safe and comfortable to express these feelings. Above all else, make sure they know you are there for them. Whether it’s a loving smile, a hug, or a special activity, let them know they are not alone or forgotten during this time. 

We want to let you know that you are not forgotten or alone during this time, either. Dementia can be challenging, isolating, and overwhelming, but Bella Groves offers moments of peace and confidence. Our dementia education program and residential care services create feelings of unconditional joy for families in San Antonio that are impacted by dementia, including those children who might be confused about what’s going on with Grandma. Bella Groves is here for you – for all of you. 
To discover our dementia resources, education, and community, we invite you to visit our website.

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