Five and a half million American adults are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, a sneaky, vicious degenerative neurological disease that gradually strips a person of their memories, their sense of self, and eventually, their life. This figure is projected to triple by 2050.
Alzheimer's is scary stuff, but adults are not the only ones affected. Children who love someone with Alzheimer's need information and reassurance, the sooner the better. Kids can sense when "something is up," so it's best to address concerns before they come to their own conclusions about why Grandma forgot their recital.
Keep it simple. Explain that Alzheimer's causes people to lose their memories and to get confused. Older children can typically handle more details than younger children, for whom examples like, "You know how Grandma sometimes forgets things we tell her?" can be especially helpful. As the disease progresses, you may want to help your child anticipate that their loved one may not recognizing them.
No matter how you break the news, your child may have a lot of feelings about it. He may worry that you could be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, feel anxious or scared about changes in their loved one's behavior or personality, and even envy the attention given to the person with Alzheimer's. These feelings are all perfectly natural, and kids need to hear this.
Be on the lookout for other clues about their feelings, including behavioral problems, difficulty focusing on schoolwork, withdrawing from family activities and even complaining about physical symptoms. Ask your child how he's doing with the changes in his loved one and enlist the aid of a counselor or his favorite teacher if you need extra support.
As their loved one's condition declines, your child may feel self-conscious about being in public with him or her. If this person lives with your family, your child may even be reluctant to have friends visit. This is OK. Make other plans, but just make sure he has time with his peers and feels permitted to confide in them.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
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