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Teaching Children How to Talk to Loved Ones With Dementia

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksNovember 28, 2018

Watching your loved ones with dementia handle the symptoms of the disease is difficult no matter your age, but it can be especially confusing for children that don’t understand what’s happening. Nonetheless, you want your kids to have as much chance as possible to know the person you love while they’re still with you.

Read on for tips on how to teach children to speak to loved ones with dementia.

Teaching Children How to Talk to Senior Loved Ones With Dementia

Spending time together is beneficial for both children and senior loved ones with dementia, but it is important to help your child understand what’s going on with their grandparent and how to handle it.

Many parents struggle with how to do that. Dorie Deats, author of “Loving Granna Rose,” has a few recommendations that can help.

1. Be honest with your childen about what to expect, within reason.

Your child is going to notice something is different about their senior loved one, so it is important to give your children the knowledge and tools to deal with that to the best of your ability. Deats recommends starting with questions to gauge their understanding of the situation, such as “Have you noticed Grandma changed?” and “what changes have you noticed?”

“You don’t want to overwhelm them or scare them,” she explains. By following their lead, you can keep the conversation on the changes that affect them.

She does suggest preparing them for the likelihood that they’ll need to begin a whole new relationship with their grandparent each time they talk, however.

“For the most part, our relationships are a series of memories that we build with somebody,” she says. But with a loved one with dementia, you aren’t able to build off of the memories that came before. They should understand that their grandparent won’t be able to engage in the same types of conversations they did before, but that doesn’t mean they care any less.

2. Explain that sometimes “make believe” is okay.

“People with dementia will say things that are nonsensical at best or disturbing at worst,” says Deats. But it’s important not to contradict them when they do.

“Bringing them back to the reality is not caring, it’s not kind, it’s not helpful,” she explains. It’s better to go along with what they’re saying.

But when you’re teaching your child that lying is bad, telling them to go along with something inaccurate that Grandma or Grandpa says can be confusing. You can frame it as playing make believe, rather than lying. When their grandparent says something they know isn’t true, it’s an opportunity to play make believe and enter their reality for a moment, before changing the subject.

3. Have activities or conversation topics planned in advance.

A meeting with a loved one with dementia will go better if your child does most of the talking.

“Train children to really carry the weight of the conversation,” Deats suggests. Give them conversation topics to bring up while they’re meeting with their grandparent — the birthday party they went to last week or what they did in school that day. A lot of children will be happy to do the talking and loved ones with dementia usually respond well to someone talking excitedly (as children tend to do).

Also consider some specific tasks you know they can both do together to keep them active and occupied throughout the visit. According to Deats, activities that are good for both children and loved ones with dementia include:

  • Coloring
  • Listening to music together
  • Making flower arrangements
  • Puzzles
  • Singing songs together

Anything that’s hands-on and doesn’t require too many steps should work.

4. Have them stay in your loved one’s line of site, in order not to startle them.

As a practical piece of advice, Deats says it’s important to always make sure you’re in a loved one with dementia’s field of vision. “You can startle people with dementia easily if they can’t see you when you’re talking to them.”

Tell your child to be aware of where they’re standing in relation to their grandparent. When you’re with them while they visit, help nudge them in the right direction as needed so you help them make a habit out of noticing where they’re standing.

“You really need to include as many of their senses as possible when communicating,” adds Deats. Encourage them to use gestures when communicating to help get their ideas across.

While every situation is different — and dementia affects people in many ways — you can still find ways to ensure your child has a healthy, positive relationship with their grandparent even as the disease progresses.

Children often bring excitement and positive energy to the way they talk and for our loved ones with dementia, that’s often exactly what they need.

Do you have parents or senior loved ones with dementia? How did you teach your children to speak to their grandparents or loved ones? We’d like to hear your stories and tips in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks

Kristen Hicks

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