Lexington Health Network

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Explaining dementia to children

Dementia is a troubling, and often misunderstood, condition. While many people believe dementia is a disease, the Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Given the confusion among adults about exactly what dementia is, it’s probably not surprising that children need to be informed about the condition and its effects on their senior loved ones.

Start the conversation

As with any conversation between an adult and child, it’s critical to use age-appropriate language when discussing dementia. For a young child, you might be able to say something as simple as, “Grammy doesn’t remember things as well as she used to. We all need to help her remember our names, and we still need to give her lots of hugs and kisses.” Explaining dementia to an older child might involve discussions about how the brain works and changes with age and could include conversations centered on books, photos, and videos.

Discuss new behavior

You’ll need to explain the changes in your senior parent’s actions. Some of the behavior you might have to address includes:

  • Repetition: It’s not unusual for loved ones to repeat questions. Let your know child know this could be due to anxiety, boredom, or memory loss.


  • Restlessness: Actions such as fidgeting, pacing, and shouting could be triggered by anger, discomfort, boredom, or stress.


  • Sundowning: Since dementia might disrupt a person’s body clock, Grandma or Grandpa could be unable to sleep through the night. When this happens, he or she might call out to, or seek out, family members.


  • Distrust: As memory fails, senior loved ones might lose, hide, or forget where they put things. This could lead to suspicion about family members stealing from – or even plotting against – them.

Acknowledge their feelings

The onset and progression of a loved one’s dementia will have an impact on children in obvious and subtle ways. They could be dealing with:

  • Anger: Children might grapple with animosity over their loved one’s condition and/or behavior.


  • Fear: As dementia surfaces and deepens, children might develop a constant state of alarm about the situation.


  • Frustration: A sense of helplessness could materialize because a child thinks he or she is incapable of helping an ailing senior loved one.


  • Shame and guilt: Youngsters could be embarrassed about their own feelings toward their senior loved one and his or her unusual behavior.

As these and other feelings develop in children, provide as many opportunities as possible for them to openly express what’s on their minds – whether to you, a trusted relative or family friend, a religious leader, or a medical professional.

Communicating with children about your senior parent’s dementia is critical. Any ongoing conversation about the subject will benefit your children, your senior parent, and you.