By Paula Spencer Scott, senior editor at Caring.com
Too often, the youngest members of the family are ignored when a health crisis or problem strikes. They may ask, “What’s happening?” and be brushed off. Or the answer to “Is Grandpa going to be all right?” is a curt (and not always realistic) “Of course!” Or they may say — and be told — nothing at all. But they’re not oblivious. They love the sick family member as much as anyone, and they deserve some kind of update.
Whatever you do, avoid the impulse to sugarcoat a problem into nonexistence. Kids aren’t dumb. They can see that Grandpa is suddenly using a cane and running short of breath. They notice when Grandma asks the same question 20 times in an hour. And they can see when their parents are full of worry or having hushed conversations.
These tips can make conversations about older generations’ health problems easier.
Do be direct. Explain in a straightforward way that the grandparent had to go to the hospital, had a problem with a body part, or is sick. Use simple language. Don’t pretend nothing’s wrong. Avoid euphemisms like “went on vacation” about a grandparent who is in rehab. Don’t lie and say that someone who has moved to a nursing home will be “back home soon.” Give some sense of the timing (“in the hospital until summer vacation starts”) and scope (“won’t be able to walk any more but can still read to you”).
Tailor your messages to their age level. Do use age-appropriate language. To a preschooler you might explain, “Grandpa had to go to the hospital to get his heart fixed.” A school-age child can understand that “Grandpa had a heart attack — that means something in his heart wasn’t working right — and he had an operation to have it fixed.”
You can help a child understand by framing the issue according to his or her body: “You know how you are so good at remembering things? Grandma is having trouble with the memory part of her brain.”
Reassure about common worries. Kids see themselves as the center of the universe and often interpret everything that happens through this lens. They may worry that Granny doesn’t remember their name because of something they said or did. They also worry about “catching” diseases, so explain the cause if a relative has something like Alzheimer’s, arthritis, or COPD, and let the child know he or she won’t contract it by being in contact with the loved one. “Don’t be afraid — Alzheimer’s isn’t like a cold. You can’t get it from being around someone who has it.”
Take your cues from the child. Depending on both developmental stage and personality, some kids are very curious. They’ll have a million questions about what caused a problem, the treatments, how it feels, and so forth. These questions may be annoying, but don’t shut them down. It’s not rude to be so nosy; they’re interested and trying to figure out how the world works. Be open to answering them as best you can. (Maybe you have a future doctor on your hands!)
Other kids, however, aren’t especially curious about the details. Don’t force them. And don’t assume that disinterest is any reflection on their relationship to the grandparent. They may be feeling overwhelmed and simply need your affection and a sense of normalcy. Everybody’s different.
Paula Spencer Scott is senior editor at Caring.com the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other loved ones. Paula is a 2011 MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow and writes extensively about health and caregiving. Want to get creative with the little ones? See Grandparent Gifts: 10 Easy Gifts Kids Can Make.