Living with Alzheimer’s:Explaining Alzheimer’s to Children Pt. 1

This is the third installment of a series of articles published by Methow Valley resident Don Reddington which will explore the issues of living with Alzheimer’s disease. The articles were written in collaboration with Raligh Bowden, M.D., and Methow Valley News reporter Laurelle Walsh and originally published in the Methow Valley News

Don & Jerry
Don Reddington and Jerry Bristol at the Bristols’ home. Photo credit; Laurelle Walsh, Methow Valley News.

If you have a parent, a family member, or a close friend who has Alzheimer’s disease (AD), it affects you as much as it affects the patient. It also has an impact on children. Explaining AD in a way that children can understand is difficult. Kids notice a lot more than adults give them credit for. They may not understand exactly the details or what is wrong, but kids deserve to be involved and informed.


Both Jerry and I have family members and close friends who have children. I am a grandparent who is blessed with seven wonderful grandchildren.

So how do we explain AD in ways that children will understand? First of all, Alzheimer’s is a big word that might not mean much to children. It didn’t to me until I began to experience memory problems and started speaking with doctors. The term “disease” sounds like something contagious that would scare a child.

So what is a simple solution? Jerry and I simply say that we have a memory loss problem. I can explain that, as we get older, lots of us old folks have a memory problem. As I age and can’t remember as much, it doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything anymore.

Teenagers understand more details than children.  I might take one of my teenage grandchildren outdoors to take a hike and enjoy the beauty of the country.  On the hike, I might explain to her that because of Alzheimer’s, I may wander away from the house some day and get lost. Although it is a possible problem that we might have, I’ll explain, she shouldn’t be afraid because she will find the way back.  Teenagers like to ask questions, and the ones that I get from them will determine how much information I will be able to share. In any event, it is quality time that a grandfather gets to spend with his grandchildren.

If a grandparent forgets a grandchild’s name or calls them by the wrong name, it may cause the child to feel that “Papa or Grandma doesn’t love me any more.” Tell your grandchildren that you love them, “but I might forget your name or call you by the wrong name at some point in time.” Being open with your grandchildren seems to gain their understanding and appreciation for their grandparents.

If any of the children ask whether they can “catch” the disease by being near you, explain that “It is only my problem. It has nothing to do with you.” Being active with your grandchildren helps them to be less concerned or scared about their grandparents. I would encourage you to interact with your grandchildren so they see Papa and Grandma as they slowly change. You want your grandchildren to have good memories of your life together!

As the process of AD continues, your grandchildren may become concerned as their grandparent becomes more physically impaired or is bedridden. At that point, the child will decide if he wants to see his grandparent or not. If the child decides that he wants to visit his grandparent, he might bring their favorite food: cookies, ice cream, chocolates, candy, or fruits. For some grandparents, the gifts might not be possible but, in any event, they will love to see you.

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