Helping Children Understand Alzheimer's Disease

When a family member has Alzheimer’s disease, it affects everyone in the family, including children and grandchildren. Giving children understandable information about Alzheimer’s can help them cope with the disease in their family. The type of relationship the child has with the family member and the child’s age are important to help determine:

  • what information the child receives
  • how the information is presented
  • the child’s part, if any, in caring for the person with Alzheimer’s disease

It is important to answer children’s questions simply and honestly. For example, you might tell a young child, "Grandma has an illness that makes it hard for her to remember things."

You can help children know that their feelings of sadness and anger are normal. Comfort them. If children express guilt or feel that they may have done something to hurt their grandparent, reassure them that they did not cause the disease.

Do not expect a young child to help care for the person with Alzheimer’s disease. Make sure a child of any age has time for his or her own interests and needs, such as playing with friends, going to school activities, or doing homework. Make sure you spend time with your child, so he or she does not feel that all your attention is on the person with Alzheimer’s.

Help the child understand your feelings. Be honest about your feelings when you talk with a child, but do not overwhelm him or her.

Many younger children will look to you to see how to act around the person with Alzheimer’s. Show children they can still talk with the person, at least in the early stages of the disease. Doing fun things together, with parental supervision depending on the age of the child, can help both the child and the person with Alzheimer’s. Here are some things they might do:

  • walk in the neighborhood
  • do simple arts and crafts
  • play music
  • sing
  • look through photo albums
  • read stories out loud

However, in the later stages of disease, the person with Alzheimer’s may be completely unresponsive. This may be very hard for a child to understand.

Some children might not talk about their negative feelings, but you may see changes in how they act. Problems at school, with friends, or at home can be signs that they are upset. You may want to ask a school counselor or a social worker to help a child understand what is happening and how to cope.

A teenager might find it very hard to accept how the person with Alzheimer’s disease has changed. He or she might find the changes upsetting and not want to be around the older person. It is a good idea to talk with teenagers about their concerns and feelings. Do not force them to spend time with the person who has Alzheimer’s. This could make things worse.

If the stress of living with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease becomes too great for a child, talk to other family members or friends about helping out. Or, find out about, and consider using, respite care options available in your community. Then, both you and your child can get a much-needed break.

For More Information

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center
P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
1-800-438-4380 (toll-free)
www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers

The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and publications for families, caregivers, and professionals on Alzheimer’s disease research, diagnosis, treatment, patient care, caregiver needs, long-term care, and education and training. Staff members answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources. The ADEAR website offers free, online publications in English and Spanish; email alert and online Connections newsletter subscriptions; an Alzheimer’s clinical trials database; the Alzheimer’s Disease Library database (AD Lib); online resource lists; and more.

For more information, see Alzheimer’s Disease Information for Children and Teens: A Resource List; Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?, an HBO film;and an accompanying discussion guide to the film.

Alzheimer’s Association
225 North Michigan Avenue, Floor 17
Chicago, IL 60601-7633
1-800-272-3900 (toll-free)
1-866-403-3073 (TDD/toll-free)
www.alz.org

The Alzheimer’s Association offers:

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
322 Eighth Avenue, 7th floor
New York, NY 10001
1-866-AFA-8484 (1-866-232-8484)
www.alzfdn.org
www.afateens.org

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
A Service of the National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Adapted from Connections newsletter, Spring 2009

Publication Date: March 2009
Page Last Updated: December 13, 2011