Helping Children Understand Alzheimer's Disease

Apr 29, 2020 1:50:00 PM / by Judy Cornish

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Currently about 8.3 million Americans live with dementia; nearly 70 percent of these people are experiencing the type of dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. By sharing some of these tips with children, you can help them understand what’s happening—and help the whole family continue to communicate their love.

Dementia takes away the ability to remember, not just a person’s memories.

When our brains are healthy, it’s good to exercise our memory. But people with dementia begin to lose this ability to access the past. Trying to jog their memory with clues or questions only shows them that their skills are failing. It’s better to share our own memories.

Instead of asking, “Grandma, don’t you remember…?” we can say, “Oh, Grandma, I remember when…!” When we love someone who is experiencing dementia, we can become their memory keepers and storytellers. If Grandma doesn’t have beautiful fingernails anymore, tell her the story of how much fun it was to paint nails together. Rather than being sad about what’s no longer possible, retell your and their happiest memories and accomplishments.

Dementia takes away our ability to recognize reality.

Dementia takes away the skills a person needs to correctly understand what is happening in the present. Our memory and our ability to compare our thoughts with what others say and do helps us properly interpret what’s true. When someone loses their memory and rational-thinking skills to dementia, they lose reality.

The best response is to follow Kiera’s lead: accept your loved one’s reality and enjoy it with them. Talk about what you can see and hear around you. Bring whatever your loved one finds pleasing or beautiful. Sensory stimulation becomes more enjoyable than conversation, so dolls, music, animals—anything that will bring them happiness—will enhance your time together.

Dementia takes away language—but not all communication.

Dementia takes away a person’s vocabulary as their memory and rational-thinking skills fade. However, they do not lose the ability to understand or communicate nonverbal messages, such as tone, expression, and gestures. Those abilities are part of a person’s intuitive thinking skills. What you say will become less important than how you say it. Your loved one will increasingly confuse words and meanings, yet will continue to recognize emotions. And people never stop feeling their own emotions, even when they can no longer express how they feel through words.

Dementia takes away the ability to change one’s own moods.

The loss of memory and rational-thinking skills also affects a person’s ability to manage their moods, while increasing their confusion, frustration, and fear. The greatest gifts we bring to our loved ones with dementia are the uplifting moods that they can no longer create for themselves.

When you’re with your loved one, put away your frustration, sorrow, and guilt. If you concentrate on expressing serenity rather than concern, you’ll find peace and comfort together. Even with dementia, people can enjoy positive emotions whenever their companions bring such feelings to share.

For more on you can help children learn about Alzheimer's Disease, click here to learn about A Doll for Grandma.

Topics: Resources

Judy Cornish

Written by Judy Cornish

Judy Cornish is the founder of the Dementia & Alzheimer’s Wellbeing Network® (DAWN) and the author of two books: The Dementia Handbook and Dementia with Dignity. Previously, she worked in vocational rehabilitation with people who had brain injuries and was a licensed attorney and member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. She left her law practice to work with people in her community who were experiencing dementia and wanted to continue living in their own homes. What she learned from them became the DAWN Method®.

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