Holidays & Dementia: Talking to Children About a Family Member's Dementia Diagnosis

During the holidays, the family all gets together to share meals, exchange presents, reminisce and enjoy each other's company. Family you haven’t seen in a while comes to visit, children play and adults prepare meals, chat and enjoy beloved traditions. But what happens when a loved one has dementia? Dementia can cause holiday plans to be disrupted and make it necessary to switch up traditions. While this is hard for everyone, adults generally have an easier time understanding this than younger children and teenagers do. According to Janna Zaidspiner, Director of Community Relations at YourLife™ of Palm Beach Gardens, offering Independent Living with Supportive Services, Assisted Living and Memory Care in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, children may not be able to understand what it means to have dementia and why their holiday looks different than those of the past. “Each person reacts differently to a loved one’s diagnosis, and they may have trouble understanding. It can be helpful to tell children in a way they understand or help them to see that their loved one is still the same person as they were before, although they are acting differently,” says Zaidspiner. “How and when you tell a child or teenager their loved one has memory loss can vary, but it’s important that they understand that their holiday can still be fun, and they can still interact and enjoy their loved one’s company.”

When do I tell children and teens their loved one has dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association®, knowing when it’s time to talk to children about memory loss depends on them. Are they beginning to ask questions, noticing changes and beginning to worry? Are teenagers acting out, becoming withdrawn or aggressive? If so, it’s likely time to bring it up. Some children and teens may be quick to ask a wide number of questions, such as what the disease is, why they keep repeating things, if their loved one knows who they are, who will get dementia – including if they will, too – and how they can help. It’s important to be as honest as possible and explain it in a way they will understand. This Alzheimer’s Association® link can help to provide you with answers to some of the most common questions to help your child both understand and cope with this diagnosis.

As a parent, how can I help?

The Alzheimer’s Association® shares a few ways that parents can help their children understand what’s going on. Try some of the following:

  • Communicate. Talk to them about dementia openly, and depending on their age, tell them what may lie ahead. The more you talk about it, the more likely your children are going to understand and be able to cope with the challenges of the disease.
  • Be honest. Answer their questions honestly and teach them more about dementia. Share as much information as you can in an age-appropriate way.
  • Reassure them. Let children and teens know that how they feel is normal. Reassure them that although their loved one has dementia, it doesn’t mean that others in the family will, too. Also let them know that scientific research is occurring that could help to discover a cure. Be sure to comfort them and let them know that it isn’t their fault, as well.

What things can children, teens and their loved one do together?

Just because their loved one has dementia, it doesn’t mean that children can no longer bond or spend time having fun together. There are many ways they can engage and enjoy the festivities with each other. Try some of the following tips:

  • Bake. Around the holidays, many people like to bake cookies, cakes and other treats. Consider making a new family tradition of baking. Your children and loved one with dementia can bond and have fun while still enjoying a festive activity.
  • Take a walk. Walk around your neighborhood and look at all the Christmas lights and decorations. This can be an enjoyable way to get some exercise in while involving everyone.
  • Color. When your children are writing letters to Santa or coloring festive pictures, involve your loved one with dementia. Coloring or drawing can help them to express themselves while improving their mood.
  • Go through old pictures. Chances are that during the holidays you spend time reminiscing already, so bring out some old pictures and talk about them. It can also help to make a scrapbook or potentially give one as a gift. Ask the children and teens to help you create it so they feel as though they are an important part of their loved one’s happiness. If the teenagers in your loved one’s life are good at using computers, see if they can create a video slideshow set to one of your loved one’s favorite songs for an added touch.
  • Listen to and sing songs. From Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, there are very few people who don’t know these lyrics. A sing-a-long can be all it takes to bring some festive cheer to the home and improve everyone’s mood.

For more information about talking to children and teens about dementia, contact the team at YourLife™ of Palm Beach Gardens. We can provide you with additional tips and advice on how to handle this subject in an age-appropriate and effective way.

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