Dementia can affect everyone during the holidays and it’s important to tell children what is happening with their grandparent. Some typical questions kids ask are:
- Dad, what’s wrong with Grandma? She’s acting weird.
- Can I catch Oldtimers (Alzheimer’s)?
- Granddad was mean, why did he yell at me?
- Mommy, why does Papa not remember me?
- Will Nana get better?
Talk with kids about their concerns. How much and what kind of information you offer depends on the age of the child. It’s best to answer questions simply and honestly. It can also be difficult for children to process feelings. Help them understand that their feelings are normal and it’s ok if they feel sad, angry, upset or embarrassed.
With questions about the disease, comfort your child with an easy explanation. Tell your child no one caused the illness nor is the illness contagious. For example, “Nana has an illness that sometimes happens to really older people. It can make it hard for Nana to remember things. She may even forget your name but it doesn’t mean she loves you any less. It’s nobody’s fault Nana is the way she is. You and I can’t catch what she has.”
Do a little research on your own. There are wonderful children’s story books that describe what is happening to a grandparent. Many parents use books to engage the child in understanding and staying connected to their grandparent. Visit your local library or check out online children resources and materials.
With a gradual progression of the disease, children will be better able to cope with the changes in their grandparent if they can visit on a regular basis. However, if your child becomes hesitant to visit, let them know you realize how hard it is because it’s hard for you too. Consider a compromise where they can visit less frequently. It isn’t in anyone’s interest to force your kids to spend time with their relative who has dementia. This could make matters worse for both the child and grandparent during a visit.
Anticipating the holidays
Before all festivities and holiday activities begin, take some steps to make the holidays more comfortable. Here are some things your child and their grandparent might try together:
- Play music or sing. Invite their Nana to enjoy their holiday recital.
- Read stories out loud. A good rendition of “Twas the night before Christmas” can tap into Papa’s long- term memory.
- Play a children’s board or card game, it gives them both an activity to do especially if initiating conversation has become difficult.
- Make a simple craft decoration or colour a holiday-themed picture. Hang the item in grandparent’s home or room. This can be a connection for the grandparent when the child is not there.
- Watch some holiday cartoons, share hot chocolate with whipped topping and snuggle under a blanket.
On the day of the holiday
For family get-togethers consider nametags (with a large font) for everyone. People with dementia look for visual cues and nametags would be helpful as grandkids (and great grandkids) tend to grow up quickly and change so much from year to year.
Children can bring exhilarating and positive energy to the way they interact with a grandparent and that’s often exactly what they need. Physical touch remains important so a big hug and a kiss, a cuddle on the couch or a leap onto their lap would be great. Consider having a designated area where grandma (or grandpa) can rest if they become overly tired or stimulated. In this quiet space, your child could also visit for a short period of time and delight in being one on one with their grandparent.
Tell us what experiences you have for encouraging a relationship between your child and their grandparent living with dementia.