Coping with a diagnosis of dementia is tough for all involved, even children. As much as we might think kids can’t cope with knowing the facts, it’s important we communicate in an age appropriate manner so that they are given the chance to understand the changes they will inevitably see.
It’s natural to want to protect children from painful situations, but if you choose to shut them out, you could be doing more harm than good. Children are often aware of changes in atmospheres, of people feeling tense and of difficulties in the family. Failing to offer an explanation about what’s happening will leave them feeling confused and worried, so it’s important to clarify the situation in an appropriate way.
The news is likely to be distressing, but it will allow the person to take their time and to come to terms with things. They will also be relieved to know that any unusual behaviour is just the illness, and not personally directed at them. By letting them see how adults cope in a difficult situation, you’ll be equipping them to manage painful emotions better later on in their own lives.
Talking about dementia
Here are some top tips for talking about a dementia diagnosis with a child or young person:
Use age appropriate language: You know your child and their maturity better than anyone, so start your discussion in the right mental place for them. Don’t dumb down your language if you usually talk to your child on a mature level, and similarly avoid using complicated or confusing words with younger people.
Be honest: Don’t be afraid to tell them the hard truth. Dementia does not usually get better, and things may get quite bad as the illness progresses. Tell them how the person might forget who they are, or may think they are someone else. Don’t filter out all the bad bits, because they will only find them harder to cope with later on.
Allay their fears: Remember, children aren’t always as logical as us adults, and may let their imagination run away with them. Reassure them that dementia isn’t contagious, nor is the person likely to die any time soon. Ask them what they are afraid of, and don’t laugh if it’s seemingly ridiculous.
It’s OK to laugh: Let them know that the person with dementia may sometimes do something silly, and that it’s OK to laugh if they put the milk in the dishwasher or keys in the oven. Let them know it’s not all doom and gloom, and that there will still be plenty of good times to be had with their loved one.
Use resources: You’ll find plenty of resources to help you explain dementia to a young person, from leaflets to storybooks and activity sheets, many of which are free. Ask your GP for any sources they might have, and explore online resources at Alzheimer’s Research UK for support in getting the message across.
Children are often far more resilient than we give them credit for, but they need to be given a chance to get involved. Don’t shut out your child in a bid to protect them, they won’t thank you later.