When dementia strikes an older family member, the effect on children can be overlooked, especially when the children knew “Grandma and Grandpa” in earlier, more “normal,” days. Discussing the situation may seem as scary to adults as the patient’s actions seem to grandchildren, but ignoring or covering up the matter is neither wise nor helpful.

Children look to adult family members for care and security, so they can be distrustful and confused when things change. An older child can be taught to treat Grandma’s mistakes with grace and enjoy Gramps’s company as much as possible, as long as communication remains open and the reasons for the change in personality are explained on their level. Otherwise, children may reach their own — often frightening — conclusions.

Of course, any explanation of the patient’s condition should match the level of understanding of the child. A child can understand the concept of “disease” or “sickness,” so a good way to start is by telling them that “Granny has a disease that makes her brain (or head) sick so it doesn’t work like it used to. It’s not Granny’s fault, just like getting a tummy ache or a hurt arm is not your fault.” Even if the afflicted family member uses rough language or gets moody, it’s not his or her fault, nor the fault of the child. So, don’t concentrate on the rough times, but cherish the better times when Grampa seems like Grampa again. Although a child may not fully understand what’s happening, they can be reminded that the grandparent would never treat him or her like that and can’t help it.

Be ready to answer the grandchild’s questions in an honest way. The time will come when you will have to tell the child that some of the things they enjoyed with their beloved grandparent — such as walks, games, drives — are no longer possible, but they can find other creative ways to spend time together. So what if the craft turns out crooked or the icing on the cake is lumpy or Nana falls asleep looking at your pictures or calls you the wrong name or repeats her stories? Oh well. We had fun together!

And “together” is the operative word. Encourage your children to spend time with their grandparent despite the cognitive disorder. It is important to keep the relationship alive. It may be difficult, but honest communication with the children on their level in their time, plus your model as a patient, accepting child, will go a long way in preserving much-loved relationships.

The mission of Bristol House Memory Care is to provide excellent care to residents and offer peace-of-mind to family members. Our vision is to be the memory care community of choice for families affected with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In the spirit of open communication, we work together with families to create a culture at Bristol House Memory Care based on respect and dignity for all individuals. Our expertise in advanced care practices and commitment to ongoing training ensures that we will provide unsurpassed quality of care.

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