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Explaining Dementia to Children

By May 18, 2015Archives

It can be hard for children to watch a loved one age, particularly when dementia is involved.

Over 5 million Americans are currently living with dementia and that number is expected to increase as the population ages. Dementia impairs a person’s memory and cognition and can affect other senses such as sight, hearing, and balance.

Nearly half of adults between the ages of 40 and 50 are doing double-time in the caregiver role. For those adults caring for children and an elderly loved one at the same time, moments can be challenging. The children of these caregivers may be involved in the care of the elder and may have many questions – particularly when behavior does not seem “normal” to the child.

Explaining why a grandparent or even a parent with dementia is acting differently to a youngster can be challenging but the best and easiest way is to be clear and direct. Children are fearful when they do not know what to expect but you can help them build reasonable expectations which will ease their anxiety.

The child needs to understand that dementia is a disease of a failing memory and thinking processes. You can explain that lack of memory causes the loved one to act child-like in some ways and that that lack of memory may cause behaviors such as:

  • Lack of Inhibition – Just in the same way that a small child is not embarrassed about body functions or lack of clothing, the elder with dementia may show the same symptoms. This may be due to failing memory, “forgetting” that certain behaviors are considered inappropriate.
  • Repetition – Asking the same questions over and over is a common symptom of dementia. The person may not actually remember the answer or he may be anxious or even bored.
  • Restlessness – Often a sign of physical discomfort but may also be caused by frustration or anger. Restlessness may include fidgeting, pacing, or even shouting.
  • Forgetfulness – A person with dementia will often lose things or forget where they were put. Some elders may begin to falsely believe that objects were stolen and accuse family members of stealing.
  • Suspiciousness – Because he or she has a failing memory, faces and objects may appear to be unfamiliar. This can create a tremendous sense of anxiety and fearfulness and he or she may become paranoid, convinced people are out to do harm.
  • The child you care for should be reassured that all of these behaviors are “normal” in someone with dementia. He or she needs to be told that no matter what the elder says, it is not the child’s fault.
    Helping a child understand dementia can go a long way towards making him comfortable and able to continue to love and support the grandparent as he can.

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