Alzheimer’s: Helping children understand the disease

Alzheimer’s affects everyone in the family — including the kids. Reassure your child with simple, honest explanations of the disease.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Watching a relative or friend progress through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease can be frightening, even for adults. Imagine being a child struggling to understand why grandma is acting so strangely or can’t remember who you are. Know how to explain Alzheimer’s dementia to your child and provide comfort.

Anticipate your child’s questions

When your child asks questions, respond with simple, honest answers. For example:

  • What’s wrong with grandma? Explain that Alzheimer’s is a disease. Just as children can get sick, older adults sometimes get an illness that causes them to act differently and to forget things. They might look the same on the outside, but their brains are changing on the inside.
  • Doesn’t grandpa love me anymore? Your child might feel rejected if the person who has Alzheimer’s disease no longer recognizes him or her. Remind your child that the disease makes it hard to remember things — but that the person can still feel your child’s love.
  • Is it my fault? If the person who has Alzheimer’s accuses your child of some wrongdoing — such as misplacing keys — your child might get upset. Explain to your child that the person with Alzheimer’s is confused. You might explain that it’s best not to correct this person because it could make the person upset or frustrated.
  • Will other family members get Alzheimer’s? Reassure your child that Alzheimer’s disease isn’t contagious. You might explain to an older child that just because a relative has Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t mean that every family member will get the disease.
  • What will happen next? If you’ll be caring for the person who has Alzheimer’s in your home, talk to your child about changes in your family’s routine. Explain to your child that the person will have good days and bad days.

If your child has trouble talking about the situation or withdraws from the person with Alzheimer’s, open a conversation. Ask what changes your child has noticed in the person. This might lead to a talk about your child’s feelings and worries. Tell your child it’s OK to feel nervous, sad or angry. You might tell your child if you feel that way sometimes too. To boost your child’s understanding of Alzheimer’s, seek out age-appropriate websites, books or videos on the disease.

Be prepared for emotional expression

Your child might express emotions in indirect ways, such as by complaining of headaches or other physical problems. Your child might feel awkward around the person with Alzheimer’s. If you’re caring for the person with Alzheimer’s in your home, your child might be reluctant to invite friends to the house — or may look for ways to spend time away from home.

If you notice these behaviors, gently point out what you’ve seen — and offer your child comfort and support. Listen to your child’s concerns. A journal might offer your child a safe space to express these feelings.

Stay involved

To help your child stay connected to the person who has Alzheimer’s, involve both of them in familiar activities — such as setting the table together. Even young children can stay connected with a person who has Alzheimer’s by paging through photo albums, listening to music or doing other simple activities together. Older children can also participate in activities or volunteer for organizations that help people with Alzheimer’s disease.

If your child becomes impatient with the person who has Alzheimer’s, remind your child that the behavior isn’t intentional — it’s a result of the disease. Together, focus on finding ways to show your love.