Discussions about Alzheimer’s and memory diseases usually focus on the patient and their adult caregivers, but these conditions also deeply affect the children in the family. It’s crucial to recognize and meet their specific needs to manage the complexities of memory diseases effectively.
Explaining the Inexplicable
Children have an amazing combination of wonder and naiveté. When a family member starts exhibiting Alzheimer’s symptoms — like forgetfulness, emotional changes, and disarray — it can be very confusing for little ones. They may question with concern, “How come Grandma can’t recognize me?” or “What makes Aunt Lisa get lost going to the bathroom?”
When explaining Alzheimer’s to a child:
Use Simple Language: “Grandpa’s brain is a bit like an old toy that doesn’t work as it used to. It’s making him forget things.”
Reassure Them: Emphasize that it’s not their fault, nor is it something they can ‘catch’ or that the person is intentionally forgetting them.
It’s crucial for children to remain involved with their loved ones. This connection can benefit both the child and the family member with Alzheimer’s. Here’s how to foster that connection:
Memory Jars: Encourage children to create ‘memory jars’, filled with notes about their day, drawings, or mementos. They can share these with their loved one, prompting conversations or just a shared moment.
Photo Albums: Create photo albums or scrapbooks that the child and their loved one can look at together. Familiar faces and past events can be comforting and serve as conversation starters.
Simple Activities: Engage in activities suitable for the family member’s cognitive level – this might be coloring, singing songs, or simple board games.
Processing Grief and Change
Witnessing a loved one’s cognitive decline is a form of anticipatory grief. This type of grief may manifest as sadness, anxiety, or confusion about why they are no longer recognized or can do the things they used to enjoy together. As the disease progresses, the child will likely grieve for the loss of the grandparent’s former self, even while they are still present. It’s a complex mix of emotions that includes the fear of the unknown, the eventual loss, and the current change in their relationship and interaction, which can be distressing and often requires sensitive support from those around them.
Here are some ways:
Open Dialogue: Create an environment where the child feels safe expressing their feelings. Regular check-ins can help them process evolving emotions.
Share Stories: Sharing stories of the loved one’s past can help children see beyond the disease, understanding that their family member had a life filled with experiences.
Seek Professional Help: If a child seems particularly affected, consider counseling or therapy. Professionals can offer coping strategies tailored to the child’s age and understanding.
Anticipatory Grief vs. Final Goodbye
Unlike other diseases where the decline might be more physical, Alzheimer’s robs individuals of their memories, personalities, and eventually, their ability to recognize loved ones. For children, this can feel like they’re losing their family member bit by bit. It’s different from mourning a sudden loss, as the person is still present, but not entirely ‘there’. Help children understand this duality. Explain that while their loved one might not remember names or events, their love and connection still exist.
While Alzheimer’s and declining memory pose undeniable challenges for young family members, they also offer invaluable lessons in compassion, patience, and the transient nature of life. With proper guidance, children can not only cope with the changes but also develop a deeper emotional intelligence that will serve them well in life.
For families navigating this journey, remember that every child processes emotions differently. Some might internalize their feelings, while others may be more vocal, and others may act out by exhibiting behavioral changes. The key is to remain attuned to their emotions and understand that this may be affecting them in a way they are not verbalizing.
If your family is navigating the challenges of memory loss and you would like help understanding your options and receiving assistance with the planning of quality care, please reach out to us today so that we can explain how care management is helping other families in your community.