Alzheimer's: Helping children understand the disease
Medically reviewed on May 28, 2018
Watching a loved one progress through the stages of Alzheimer's disease can be frightening, even for adults. Imagine being a child struggling to understand why grandma is acting so strangely or can't remember who you are. Know how to explain Alzheimer's to your child and provide comfort.
Anticipate your child's questions
When your child asks questions, respond with simple, honest answers. For example:
- What's wrong with grandma? Explain that Alzheimer's is a disease. Just as children get colds and tummy aches, older adults sometimes get an illness that causes them to act differently and to forget things. They might look the same on the outside, but their brains are changing on the inside.
- Doesn't grandpa love me anymore? If the person who has Alzheimer's disease no longer recognizes your child, he or she might feel rejected. Remind your child that the disease makes it hard for your loved one to remember things — but your child is still an important part of the person's life.
- Is it my fault? If the person who has Alzheimer's accuses your child of some wrongdoing — such as misplacing a purse or keys — your child might feel responsible. Explain to your child that he or she isn't to blame.
- Will other family members get Alzheimer's? Reassure your child that Alzheimer's disease isn't contagious. You might explain to an older child that just because a loved one has Alzheimer's, it doesn't mean that he or she or other family members will get the disease.
- What will happen next? If you'll be caring for the person who has Alzheimer's in your home, prepare your child for the changes in routine. Explain to your child that your loved one will have good days and bad days. Reassure your child that he or she is loved — no matter what the future holds.
If your child has trouble talking about the situation or withdraws from your loved one, open the conversation. Ask what changes your child has noticed in the loved one who has Alzheimer's disease. Your child's observations might lead naturally to an exploration of his or her own feelings and worries. Tell your child it's OK to feel nervous, sad or angry. You might share if you feel that way sometimes, too.
To boost your child's understanding of Alzheimer's, read age-appropriate books on the disease or take advantage of other educational resources.
Be prepared for emotional expression
Your child might express his or her emotions in indirect ways. For example, he or she might complain of headaches or other physical issues. Your child's attention to schoolwork might begin to slide. If you're caring for your loved one in your home, your child might be reluctant to invite friends to the house — or he or she might look for ways to spend time away from home.
If you notice these types of behaviors, gently point out what you've observed — and offer your child comfort and support. Listen to your child's concerns, and help your child feel safe in sharing his or her feelings.
To help your child stay connected to the person who has Alzheimer's, involve both of them in familiar activities — such as setting the table together. Shared leisure time is important, too. Even young children can stay connected with a loved one who has Alzheimer's by paging through photo albums, listening to music or doing other simple activities together.
If your child becomes impatient with your loved one, remind your child that the behavior isn't intentional — it's a result of the disease. Together, focus on finding ways to show your loved one how much you love him or her. Even if your loved one forgets your child's name, he or she can still feel love and kindness.