“Mummy, What’s Wrong With Grandad?” Explaining Dementia To Children: A Guide

Children, especially those who are very young, thrive on routine and very quickly develop a sense of what is ‘normal’ for them and their family. Anything out of the ordinary can be confusing, unwelcome, and even frightening; and so when a beloved grandparent or other elderly family member is suddenly not ‘normal’, it can be distressing. Nanny doesn’t seem to have the patience for you anymore and she’s struggling to remember the story she has told you a thousand times when you’re snuggled into her lap. Grandad is saying some strange things and he asked your Daddy who he was...yesterday he called you by a name that wasn’t yours… All distressing situations for adults, let alone for a child who is still making sense of the world. 


So how do we explain to our children what is happening to their beloved family member when we are struggling to come to terms with the reality of it ourselves? In this guide we have put together some suggestions and tips that might help when it comes to telling children about Alzheimer’s and Dementia that, depending on the age of the child, might reassure them and allay some of their fears.

When Is It The Best Time To Explain Alzheimer’s To A Child?

When it comes to very grown-up subjects such as Alzheimers or dementia it can be tempting to want to put that discussion off for as long as possible - particularly if you are a little in denial or struggling with the diagnosis yourself, but kids are not stupid, and they will soon pick up on the changes in everyone’s behaviour - not just the beahviour of their ill grandparent. If your child is old enough to understand the concept of people becoming ill, then it is best to discuss the subject with them as soon as possible.

But How Do You Avoid Frightening Them?

Of course it is important to explain things in an age-appropriate way and in language that they will understand, but however old they are it is best not to beat around the bush with the facts.

Incredibly young children have very limited understanding of illness or disease, if any at all, but they are still highly attuned to the atmosphere around them and easily pick up the stress in your voice, or changes in your demeanour. Your best course of action in this case is just to be as comforting and reassuring as possible with your voice and body language.

From the ages of around 2-6 children are starting to ask lots of questions about the world around them, including why Grandad is suddenly acting differently. It is best to answer their questions as honestly as possible, and if you don’t know the answer; just say so. It is ok to express that you feel sad that Grandad is poorly, and it’s a good idea to encourage them to talk about what they have noticed and how it makes them feel.

Slightly older children, up to pre-teens, might be ready to learn a bit more about how and why their loved one has developed dementia, and it’s important to share with them what you know. This age group might be less likely to talk about how it makes them feel to see that the grandparent they have known all their lives is changing, and they might have feelings such as anger that they’re having trouble processing and expressing. Encourage them instead to write it down in a diary or journal, or maybe they would feel more comfortable speaking to strangers going through the same thing and would like to join a support group, either in person or online.

By their teenage years, children might have already seen a family member live with a life-changing illness, or even pass away, and so seeing someone else that they love suffer could have a huge impact on their adolescent life. They might feel that life is unfair and be incredibly angry; or maybe they are in mourning for the grandparent who used to take them out and was so involved in their life, and now doesn’t always know who they are. Let them know it’s ok to be angry, to shout even, or to be scared, and that it is always better to express that than to keep it bottled up. Teenagers are still trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world, and grandparents are a huge part of that identity, so it is understandable that they may well swing between acting incredibly grown up about the situation and throwing a childlike tantrum. So brace yourself...but then if you have teenagers you’re probably used to rolling with the punches when it comes to their moods!

Honesty Is The Best Policy

Keeping it simple when it comes to telling children the facts about dementia is always the best approach…

  • Answer their questions honestly
  • Let them know that currently there is no cure for dementia
  • Tell them that it is a condition that gets worse over time
  • Talk about ways they can still spend time and connect with their loved one, even if it’s not the same things they used to do
  • Be honest, even if it’s upsetting - building trust with them so that they will come to you and be open with their thoughts and fears is much more important than hiding the ugly truth

We are always being told that children are resilient creatures who ‘bounce back’ in the face of adversity, but that is only true if we make them that way. When it comes to a subject like dementia and how it is affecting someone they have loved all their lives, all we can do is be honest with our children and encourage them to be honest with us so that we can get through what life throws at us together, as a family
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