Explaining dementia to children can be hard and of course it depends on the age of the child. These tips may help you to provide support. 

It can be difficult knowing how to explain to a child that a grandparent or elderly relative has dementia. You might be concerned about how the dementia will affect the child’s relationship with that person, especially if you’re worried that any erratic or unusual behaviour might be frightening for them. However, you may be surprised at how understanding children can be. Here are some suggestions at how to sensitively explore dementia with children…

Consider the age of the child
Your approach to the subject will differ depending on the age of the child. You may find that very young children, for example toddlers, will take the situation at face value. The present moment is often the only thing that matters to them – they do not get bogged down with the past or what the future might hold. Therefore, you may notice that they can interact quite happily with the person with dementia – certainly during the early and mid-stages. It is also worth noting that young children often enjoy repetitive games or activities, so this could be built into a visit with the person with dementia.

Explain the symptoms
Explain the symptoms of dementia in a sensitive way that the child will understand. Don’t bombard the child with more detail than they need, unless of course the child asks and they are old enough to handle this information. Drip-feed information. You may be able to explain more to an older child but with a younger child it’s more about explaining that their grandparent may forget things or might sometimes seem unhappy.

Lead by example
Children will often follow your lead during a visit to a grandparent with dementia. Whatever concerns or fears you might have, it’s important to put these aside when visiting the person with dementia, especially when doing so with children. If you can act relaxed and calm, your children will realise there is nothing to be scared of, even if the grandparent does seem confused, forgetful or distracted. 

Respect the relationship
A relationship with a grandchild can offer the person with dementia a huge amount of self-worth. Young children very much live in the moment and often will not have a fixed idea about how Grandma or Grandpa ‘should’ be behaving, so visits may not upset them, especially if the person is deteriorating quite gradually. For older children, it’s important to support their relationship with the grandparent. Help them by discussing things they might talk about prior to the visit. They may be able to help with tasks when visiting their grandparent, such as fetching them a glass of water or making them a cup of tea, which will give them a sense of responsibility that will likely empower them and help strengthen the bond.

Keep visits short if it helps
You could consider keeping the visits short if the older child or teenager begins to become upset, to avoid damaging the relationship and ensure they don’t get put off from future visits.