Helping children understand Alzheimer’s disease

Nov 4, 2019


Having a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be hard for everyone in the family. But it may be particularly difficult for children. They may not understand why a beloved grandparent is suddenly so forgetful, for example. The changes they are seeing in their loved one may make them feel confused or scared.

In honor of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, we’re offering tips on how to help a child cope when a family member has Alzheimer’s.

Six suggestions from experts

The following tips for parents are courtesy of the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association.

1. Talk about it

Children often have questions about their loved one’s disease. It’s important to answer those questions honestly and openly.Of course, the amount and type of info you share will depend on the child’s age. For youngsters, keep it simple. You might say grandma has an illness that makes it hard to remember things. As you talk to your child:

  • Prepare them for changes. Help them understand how their relative’s behavior may change as the disease progresses.
  • Assure them that their feelings are normal. Children may feel sad that their loved one is ill, as well as frustrated, fearful, or embarrassed because of their relative’s behaviors. Teens may resent that they may need to help out around the house more as you care for a loved one, or they may need to help with caregiving tasks.
  • Make sure they know it’s not their fault. People with Alzheimer’s can sometimes direct anger or confusion at family members. If this happens, assure your child that it’s not because of anything they did.​​​

You might consider buying a book about Alzheimer’s that’s written for children or teens. It may have some helpful words you’ll want to share.

2. Watch for signs of distress

No two children will react to a loved one’s illness in exactly the same way. Some kids may try to keep their feelings to themselves, even though they’re upset. Others may:

  • Have problems at school.
  • Invite their friends over less often.
  • Spend more time away from home and less time with the person with Alzheimer’s.
  • Have physical symptoms of stress, like stomachaches or headaches

3. Ask for professional help, if needed

A school counselor or your child’s doctor may be a good source of support for your child.

4. Avoid unintended pressures

Remember, young children shouldn’t be asked to help with caregiving duties, such as watching grandpa while you run errands.

5. Keep them connected

Many children (and adults) don’t know what to say to someone with Alzheimer’s or how to act around them. It’s up to you to show your children that there are many activities they can still do with their loved one, if they both feel up to it.

For example, you might suggest that they:

  • Do arts and crafts, like drawing or scrapbooking.
  • Take walks.
  • Watch old TV shows.
  • Look through photo albums.
  • Read stories out loud.
  • Listen to music or sing songs.

6. Give your time and attention

Children can sometimes resent the increased attention you have to show a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Once again, this is normal. Carving out time for some special one-on-one activities with your child can help ease those feelings and reassure your child that you still love them.

Understand your family history

Just because a loved one has Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean the disease runs in your family. Even so, knowing your family’s healthy history is important.