Explaining Dementia to Children

Written by Active Minds on Sunday the 9th of August 2020.


Finding out you are or a loved one is living with dementia can be a difficult time and telling people can be overwhelming and emotional. As such, explaining dementia to the younger generations in your family can often be overlooked or sometimes considered inappropriate, but is of great importance that they understand what is happening.

For children it is important that they understand how and why their loved one is changing, and even though this is a complex subject there are many different ways to educate younger people and help them through. Encouraging questions is vital for building their understanding and even though it is natural as adults to protect children from difficult situations, discussing dementia will help to build reassurance and comfort.

Benefits of Explaining Dementia to Young Children

Children may be reluctant to engage with older family members living with dementia; this is usually because they don’t understand the changes they are going through. By explaining dementia in a calm and reassuring manner, it can give younger children the opportunity to ask questions and gain understanding. Children are inquisitive and often the more they know, the better they will feel.

It is common for children to be confused or worried about their loved one who is living with dementia, but when they have more information they should feel more comfortable with the situation. Children are perceptive and can usually sense change or tension; they may begin to think they’ve done something wrong, so it is important they understand it is not their fault.

When to Explain Dementia to Young Children

Once changes in mood, personality or memory begin to become obvious, it may be a good time to inform children. It is important they are told as soon as possible that it is not their fault so that they can understand why these changes are happening. The sooner children are told, is usually the better. It gives them more time to understand and makes it easier to digest.

How to Approach Telling Children

There are a variety of wonderful resources available that help children of different ages gain an understanding of the illness. For example, Alzheimer’s Research UK has a brilliant section on their website with resources and games designed to help children get to grips with dementia, including a brain exploration game and a story called When Grandma Came To Stay, which tells the tale of a young girl who has to deal with some unusual situations when her grandma with dementia comes to stay. The learning sections are divided by age groups – young kids, juniors and teens – and really do give a factful, non-patronising, gentle introduction to dementia and how it will impact on them and their loved one’s lives.

How to Explain What Dementia Is to Children

When you decide the time is appropriate to begin explaining about dementia, it is important that you approach the subject in a calm and informative way. Children are inquisitive and are aware of tension or difficult atmospheres so it may be worth choosing a location which is familiar and relaxing.

Be as honest as possible when explaining the situation, but still bear in mind that you are speaking to a child, so language and certain details may need to be more subtle. It is important to allow them to ask questions and speak openly about their feelings throughout the conversation.

You may be very aware of the effects that Alzheimer’s has on the mind and body but it’s unlikely your children have ever encountered or even heard of the condition. Take as much time as possible to answer all their questions and learn more about dementia together.

Remember to try not to confuse or worry them with the intricate details but rather start with simple facts and encourage them to ask questions.

And finally, be aware of signs that your child may be struggling to come to terms with the news. If you notice that your child starts to perform poorly at school or becomes withdrawn then you may need to have further discussions with them about what is happening. It is also important to speak to their teachers and school counsellors so they are aware of the situation and are on hand to provide support and talk to your child if needs be.

For help with explaining dementia to younger children, there are many different resources online such as this one from the Alzheimer’s Society.