Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is not for the faint of heart. Attending to the regular daily tasks of a caregiver is challenging enough. But as a grandparent, chances are good that your grandchildren have been asking a lot of questions about the illness, particularly when they see their loved one’s behavior change from day to day.
Experts agree that whether they are preschool age or adolescents, it is important to take the time to listen to your grandchild’s feelings and be open about what is happening. “Children perceive things as their fault, so the key is to make sure you reinforce that their elder is not acting in a certain way because of something the child did or did not do,” explains Gail Gazelle, MD, President of MDCanHelp.com and the Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Also, it’s important to remember that children often find change scarier than adults do, so pay extra special attention to their fears and how they can get acted out.”
The next time your grandchild visits, include them in the routine you’ve established for your loved one so that they are less afraid of the changes in behavior brought on by the Alzheimer’s. ”Have them help draw a calendar for the day or the week to remind the person with Alzheimer’s what may be happening next-a visit with the family, activity time, or lunch time,” suggests Dr. Pio Andreotti, New York State Licensed Psychologist and the clinical supervisor for the Long Island College Hospital of Brooklyn’s renowned Lamm Institute for Pediatric Neurology and Developmental Disorders. “Children can draw or color signs to help make reminders.” Dr. Andreotti also suggests getting your grandchild involved in helping to make a scrapbook or collage for their grandparent or great-grandparent, which can help to foster good memories.
If your loved one is in an assisted living or long-term facility, don’t hesitate to bring your grandchildren in for a visit. ”Children’s visits brighten the days of our residents,” says Ellen Popson, Arcadia Unit Director at ManorCare inPottsville,PA. “They’re a ray of sunshine. Alzheimer’s patients’ long-term memories are intact, and children help them bring out good family memories. They remember their wedding day, or the births of their own children.”
Popson recommends keeping the length of the visit to 15 or 20 minutes so that your loved one does not tire out or experience a change in mood before you leave. Make the most of your grandchildren’s visits to the facility by spending time together. Most nursing care facilities have common areas or lounges with games or puzzles that residents’ families are encouraged to use. Popson says that her staff holds educational sessions for families to explain how the Alzheimer’s affects a person’s brain, using grapes as a normal brain, and raisins to demonstrate the Alzheimer’s patient’s. “We’ve had children as young as 5 attend, and they are very attentive,” she explains.
Keep the lines of dialogue open with your grandchild as your loved one’s Alzheimer’s worsens, and help them to validate their feelings. More importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Whether you reach out to your family members, a medical professional, or a caregiver support group, it is important to remember that there is plenty of support available to you. As a caregiver, you need plenty of time, patience, good organizational skills, and also the ability to know your limits when your additional responsibilities become overwhelming.
Depending on the age of your grandchild, have them get involved in a craft or activity with your loved one while you take a much-needed break. Reminisce about happy times you shared as a family. This will help your loved one’s memory and also help your grandchild to learn more about your family’s history. “Alzheimer’s is known as the ‘endless funeral’, because you lose your loved one a little at a time,” Popson explains. “But no one can go this journey alone. If you don’t reach out, you aren’t good to anyone.”
Dr. Gazelle agrees. ”Whatever feelings any member of your family has, it’s perfectly normal,” she stresses. “The key is to emphasize that, as a family, you will work together to push away guilt or any negative self-judgments about how being with your loved one feels.”