How to Help Your Children Cope with Their Aging Grandparent

September 27, 2015

As you can imagine, many of the wonderful seniors who live in LCB communities are also devoted grandparents whose grandchildren treat us to an extra dose of youthful energy every time they visit! The grandchild-to-grandparent relationship is so often a cherished one; and yet challenges can crop up when young ones come up against grandparents’ behavioral changes, whether they’re due to aging, or illness, or both. Parents can struggle with how to prepare their kids for these changes – or how to explain why they’re happening – in a way that isn’t confusing or upsetting.

Here are some strategies we’ve found helpful for our community families dealing with these issues:

  • Communication is key: Having open and honest conversations about how Grandpa might be acting is the most important part of the process. “If parents don’t tell their children what’s going on, they’re going to make up their own story,” says pediatric social worker Kris Nilsson. “You can’t protect your child by just not talking about it.” At the same time, find out how your child views the situation before launching into an explanation that might address concerns that don’t exist. Do this with open-ended questions like “Have you ever known someone who forgets things a lot?” or “How did you feel about Grandpa being crabby last Sunday?” These types of conversation-starters not only allow you to suss out what’s worrying your child, but they also give her the opportunity to articulate and unload worries that might be suppressed by well-meaning but preemptive reassurances on your part.
  • Keep Explanations Simple: Parents often give too much information when trying to prevent a child’s anxiety about a grandparent’s change in behavior or appearance. Better to aim for incremental conversations that allow for a gradual unfurling of information, as opposed to simply unloading. So, in the case of a medical event, for example: rather than launching into “Grandma had something called a stroke and won’t be able to talk when we see her today – she also might be drooling and looking off into space” try an approach like “We’re going to visit Grandma, who might seem a little quiet today but some smart doctors are helping her feel better. Let’s go give her a hug.” More details can come when and if they’re needed, depending on the child’s age and state of mind. And be mindful of not resorting to vague and generic language like “Grandpa’s sick”- that could cause your child unnecessary worry when someone they know gets sick with a cold, for example.
  • Focus on the Positive: If Grandma’s not as with-it as she used to be, that’s a real loss for a child who might be used to taking nature walks together, for example, or trips to the ice cream store. So shift to activities your child can still do with her, like looking at books together; playing a card game; baking something simple; or going through photo albums, or a jewelry box. If this kind of interaction isn’t an option, suggest concrete things your child might enjoy doing for Grandpa, like designing a card, or writing a poem; painting a picture, or baking his favorite brownies to bring at the next visit.

If your family is dealing specifically with dementia in a grandparent, head to the National Institute on Aging for excellent resources on helping children of all ages cope with this disease.