How to Help Children Understand a Loved One’s Memory Loss

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With more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, families across the country are faced with the difficult challenge of explaining the illness and how it impacts those we love to their children. Navigating a conversation that informs children about memory loss and behavioral changes can help create a supportive atmosphere for the child and a loved one living with memory impairment.

Here are some tips to help children understand a loved one’s memory loss:

Have honest and open conversations

Even though grandpa and grandma don’t appear different, having an honest age-appropriate conversation is important to help your child understand what memory loss is and prepare for changes that will happen. The easiest way to describe how Alzheimer’s works to a child may be to explain that the brain is sick, and that’s what causes memory loss, and in some cases, changes in behavior or personality.

“Children are intuitive and are aware that something is different with grandma or grandpa,” said Elizabeth Laczi, regional director of memory care at Elderwood, a leading provider of senior care in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that offers memory care services. “Children may respond differently when learning about the disease, so it’s important to keep communication open, answer questions and let them know that you’re a safe place to confide in.”

Children can feel a wide range of emotions when they encounter someone they know who is suffering from memory loss. They can feel sad because of what’s happening to someone they love. They can become fearful and frustrated with the behaviors and actions they’re witnessing. Some young children may even be afraid that memory loss is contagious. Explain to them that you can’t catch Alzheimer’s or dementia and encourage your child to interact with your loved one. 

“It’s important to reassure them that their feelings are normal, regardless of how your child is feeling and that they don’t need to be afraid. You may be feeling those same things too and those are feelings that you can share,” said Laczi.

Involve your child in the process

As you figure out effective ways to communicate with your loved one, include your children in the conversation. Share communication techniques that work to ensure your child continues a close relationship with their loved one.

One of the most challenging experiences is when a grandparent forgets their grandchild’s name. Prepare your child for the possibilities they may face with their loved ones. Encourage your them to have empathy because the chances are their grandparent is just as upset with not being able to remember their grandchild’s name but able to recognize them. Offer your child tips to help them during this moment by remaining calm and patient and sharing their name and that they may have to repeat themselves multiple times. 

Here are some ways to set your children up for success in different interactions:

  • Make sure they say a greeting and their name, for example, “Hi Papa, it’s me- Ben!”
  • Have them wait for their loved one to respond.
  • Have your child show them something that they made for them or did for the week. For example, show a picture with a brief explanation or show a project that they completed.
  • Limit the questions from your child to your loved one. Keep the conversation focused on the “now” and focus on “context” that everyone can participate. For example, use your loved one’s amazing long-term memory and talk about something in parallel that your grandchild is showing or talking about.
  • Minimize distractions and noise that can interfere with the individual with dementia’s understanding.
  • Keep the visit time with the grandparent to the individual’s tolerance. It is about positive interactions and engagement – not duration.  

Encourage your child to find ways to express how they’re feeling by keeping a journal or going for walks together to talk about their emotions. This is an excellent coping tool that will offer comfort. Finding resources and educating your child about memory loss will help prepare for any changes that will happen over time. The Alzheimer’s Association provides various support groups to help inform families about memory loss and techniques that can help with communication.

Continue making memories together

No matter the stage of memory loss, remember there are still ways that your family can bond together. Since communication can be difficult for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, participating in non-verbal activities that don’t depend on memory can bring great joy. Children also enjoy doing various activities and it can be a fun opportunity to continue to bond with your loved one and create memories together.

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests the following activities that families can participate in together:

  • Bake or prepare a meal
  • Go for a walk around the neighborhood
  • Work on a puzzle
  • Work in the garden
  • Look through photographs
  • Create a memory box or scrapbook
  • Draw or color
  • Listen to and sing some favorite songs

For more information on memory care services to preserve your loved one’s quality of life, click here.