In one of my many pre-journalistic lives, I was an activities director at a nursing home. Most of the residents with whom I worked were struggling with some form of mental deterioration. Visits from family members were often difficult: adult children trying to come to grips with a loved one made unfamiliar by Alzheimer's and grandchildren trying to comprehend what Alzheimer's is.
I believe it's important to try to explain Alzheimer's to young children rather than sugar coat it.
Children and conceptions of mental health
Children's conception of mental health problems tends to be curdled by popular culture. Cartoons seem to suggest that the mentally ill person is to blame for his condition. Young children should understand that Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain, like a cough is an infection of the lungs. But, unlike an infection of the lungs, Alzheimer's is not contagious.
Dealing with altered behavior
As Alzheimer's progresses, memory loss is exacerbated by behavior changes.
I recall one of the residents in the nursing home, a formerly sweet-natured grandmother, whose dementia manifested itself in accusations peppered with crude language. It seemed to me that the self-control that had kept her from speaking her mind all those years was gone and a floodgate of resentments had opened up. The grandchildren in the room were naturally confused by this shift in personality.
Kids internalize such shifts. They tend to assume that they must have had something to do with provoking them. Young children should be reassured that such behavior is not their fault, that their grandparent is acting that way out of fear and frustration, not out of genuine anger.
It is often said that elderly people with Alzheimer's become children again.
This is a difficult concept for adult children to accept, but it may be a way for grandchildren to understand the disease. Feeling lost and confused in an unfamiliar world is a sensation with which children are intimately acquainted.
Helping children connect with grandparents who have Alzheimer's
- Sharing memories
There are many ways a grandchild can effectively connect with an ailing grandparent. As an activities director, I was astounded again and again by the power of music and its capacity for instantly enriching the lives of the residents. Music was a balm, a memory aid and a social lubricant.
A grandparent and grandchild can explore music together in various ways, from passive listening to active performance.
I have noticed that elderly residents with deteriorating mental conditions retain older memories with much more clarity than recent ones and that they love to recount the things that have happened to them. Grandchildren can engage in memory-based projects with their grandparent or grandparents, everything from memory books and boxes, to scrapbooks to memoir writing.
The bottom line
There is nothing easy about Alzheimer's; it is difficult for all concerned. But communicating regularly with your child will help him or her understand the disease and help you understand how your child is coping with it. Children experience things keenly, but they bounce back from -- and adapt to -- crises even better, perhaps, than adults do.
For more information about Alzheimer's, and teaching your kids about Alzheimer's, try these links:
- Alzheimer's Foundation of America
- Caring for Seniors with Alzheimer's Disease
- The Mayo Clinic: Helping Children Understand the Disease
Steve Penhollow is the Arts and Entertainment Reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in Indiana. He has written for a number of publications, including the Advocate chain of newspapers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.