How to explain dementia to children


When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, the diagnosis affects the entire family. Depending on how severe their dementia is and how quickly it progresses, you may need to start making plans for full-time care for your loved one. 

As a parent, your natural instinct is to protect your child from things that may upset them, including their grandparent’s diagnosis. But we recommend being honest with your child and helping them understand the reality of the situation, because after your loved one receives their diagnosis, they’ll need support from the whole family. Here are some tips to help you explain dementia to your children. 

When is the best time to talk to my child?

As soon as possible after the diagnosis, and involve the whole family if it’s possible. If your parent is able to have the conversation with their grandchild, it may be best to hear it directly from them. Don’t expect your child to understand what dementia is, or to grasp the conversation in full, but don’t put off having the conversation. 

Explain that dementia is not the same thing as an upset tummy

Young children usually have limited experience and understanding of illness, so they may think that dementia is something that’ll go away after a week, much like a runny nose or an upset tummy. Be clear and explain to them that dementia is permanent, and that it will cause their grandparent’s behavior to change over the coming months and years. 

Make it clear that they can ask questions at any time

Watching a grandparent change can be very confusing and even frightening for children. When you sit down to have the conversation, give them several opportunities to ask any questions, and let them know that they can come to you at any time with questions at a later time. 

Explain that their grandparent still loves them

Yes, grandma or grandpa may soon exhibit out-of-character behaviors and may also have difficulty remembering who their family members are, so be sure to explain that this is because of dementia, not because they don’t love their grandchildren anymore. 

Reassure them that it’s okay to feel scared

When a child’s grandparent has sudden and drastic changes in mood, behavior, and memory, feeling scared is a completely normal reaction. Reassure them that feeling frightened is normal, and keep reminding them that their grandparent would never intentionally do anything to scare or harm them. 

The expression “honesty is the best policy” definitely applies to explaining dementia to children. Depending on how old your child is, they may be able to grasp certain concepts about the situation, but for younger children you’ll probably need to continue having conversations about their grandparent as they get older and are able to understand more. 

Your senior loved one will need the support of their whole family, so being open and honest is the best way to be supportive. And while it may seem that younger children don’t fully understand what’s happening, having those difficult conversations earlier will help lay the groundwork for future conversations when they’re ready. 

At UMC, our Tapestries Memory Care Community is tailor-made for people with dementia to ensure they live safe, healthy, happy lives. Our memory care specialists are available to answer any of your questions or provide more information, so please contact us today. We look forward to hearing from you.

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