Plop. Ripples expand in all directions as a pebble changes a pond’s surface from stillness to waves. Dementia, and its most common form, Alzheimer’s Disease, affects families this way, touching everyone. Entire families need help processing dementia’s changes. Teens and kids deserve special attention because even though they mayhave the same feelings, they do not have the emotional maturity and coping skills of adults.Common feelings, according to the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Fear, sadness, and embarrassment about the changes in the relative and his/her behavior.
- Fear that dementia is contagious and could appear in themselves or their parents.
- Anger at having to repeatedly answer questions or give their name to a grandparent.
- Guilt at their own reactions of anger and frustration.
Teens and kids can have an especially challenging time at family holiday gatherings. Prepare your teens with understanding and information, particularly if they aren’t often with the relative suffering from dementia.
- Find basic information on Alzheimer’s and dementia, Alz.org has links to made-for-teens YouTube videos. Watch together.
- Answer questions honestly about dementia and how the disease is progressing in your relative.
- Explain typical behaviors, such as following or agitation from too much noise.
Communication tools can help teens feel more comfortable.
- When asked the same question repeatedly, stay calm and answer as clearly as possible, using few words. “I’m your grandson, Jake. This is our Christmas party.”
- Enter the relative’s world. A grandfather might mistake a grandson for the teenaged version of his own son. Playing along with the conversation is acceptable.
- When stories are repeated, pretend it is the first time you’ve heard it and ask questions. After a few repetitions, explain you need to get a soda and ask if they would like a glass of water.
- Recognize teens might need to take a break from the party.
Activities can ease spending time with a relative with dementia. Propose teens and kids:
- Escort their relative on a family walk outside, if mobility and weather permits.
- Watch a favorite family movie
- Set the table; fold napkins
- Listen to music (from the loved one’s favorite era)
- Look at family photos or mementos
Emotions and reactions may take a while to develop. If you observe mysterious stomachaches, a change in school performance or unusual attitudes, your child may be more upset about their relative’s disease than they have expressed. Encourage them to explore their feelings, either with you, another trusted adult, or through journaling. Reinforce it is normal to need time to absorb a new situation. Some kids and teens address feelings through creativity, such as poetry or collage.
Remember your family is not alone in living with Alzheimer’s disease; there are many paths to healthy coping. Maintaining good relationships is a healthy family aim and takes work. Draw on past experiences of overcoming challenges. What tools and traditions give your family strength? Seek them now. Get help if need be. The waves from the pebble’s drop into a pond eventually smooth into a new stillness.
Lee Nyberg seeks to help families and those living with Alzheimer’s through education and her company, Home Care Assistance.