How to Prepare Children to Meet Grandparents and Great-Grandparents with Dementia

Thanksgiving Dinner table

The holiday season is upon us, the time when families gather together to break bread, share stories, and celebrate. It may also be a chance for your young children to spend quality time with a grandparent or great-grandparent who has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. You may be worried about how your children will react, or what you should say to them about memory loss. Our intergenerational programs here at Sunshine Care have shown us that children can be sensitive and supportive of adults with dementia if they are given a little preparation and encouragement. In fact, children can learn a great deal from adults with dementia and renew a strong and loving relationship with their grandparents and great-grandparents over the holidays.

Here is how you can prepare your children for the visit:

Recognize that younger and older children will respond to dementia differently

As a parent, you are well aware that very young children have difficulty picking up on social cues. In fact, it is likely that children under age eight won’t notice when an older adult has mild or intermediate dementia. Instead, they may ask questions about a wheelchair or walker, or they will ask about the family member’s appearance. Older children, especially those who have spent more time with their grandparents or great-grandparents in the past, will probably notice repetition in conversation or changes in mood.

It may not be necessary to explain dementia to young children, but you’ll want to talk with older children about the disease before your family gathers together. When you have this conversation, try to avoid using words like, “weird” or “crazy” to describe your family member.

Help your children know what to expect

Prepare older children for the changes they may notice in their family member. For example, a grandparent or great-grandparent with dementia may repeat the same story multiple times or have difficulty keeping up with a conversation. They may not smile as often or remember the names of all of their family members. These behaviors will be far less surprising if your child is expecting them.

Show your children how to respectfully treat an adult with dementia

Your children may feel uncertain about how to treat a person with dementia. The best advice you can give them is to show the family member love, use active listening, and treat them as a normal person with a few modifications. For example, it can sometimes be difficult for someone with dementia to follow a conversation or understand a question. You can explain to your children that the family member needs more time to process the information. One helpful trick is to ask the question or say the sentence again using the exact same wording.

Help your children prepare for the gathering

You can help your children beat out nerves when meeting a family member with dementia by working with them to prepare some questions or topics to discuss in advance. For instance, some good questions are:

  • What did you used to do for Thanksgiving as a child?
  • What was the best gift you ever got for Christmas/Chanukah?
  • What are your favorite holiday traditions?
  • What are your favorite holiday foods and treats?
  • What is your favorite holiday song?

Individuals with dementia tend to hang onto older memories the longest, so asking about childhood experiences is a good idea and a great way for your children to connect with the older generations of their family. If open-ended questions don’t seem to be working, try offering multiple-choice or Yes/No questions. For example:

  • What is your favorite thing to eat at Thanksgiving? Turkey or mashed potatoes?
  • Do you like the song “Jingle Bells”? Do you want to sing it with me?

Encourage your children to learn about dementia

Children are naturally curious, and one way to help your children better understand their grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s condition is to encourage them to learn more about dementia or Alzheimer’s. One of the families at Sunshine Care challenged their older children to research dementia and then tell their parents what they learned. The internet is rich in resources, and the more your children understand about dementia, the more they will be able to empathize with their affected family member.

If you have younger children who are not quite old enough yet for internet research, we suggest that together you read the fantastic book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. The story is about a little boy who lives next door to a nursing home and sets out to help several of the residents connect with their long-term memories.

Children aren’t the only ones who may feel nervous about spending time with a family member diagnosed with dementia. It can also be difficult for adult family members. To share your worries and receive support from other families in the same situation, consider attending our monthly Support Group for Caregivers & Families.


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