When Grandma or Grandpa Forgets
by Crystal Bowman
We often joke about having a “senior moment” when we can’t recall a word or when we forget what we were going to say. When parents or grandparents call a child by their sibling’s name, it also makes us crack a smile or roll our eyes. But when memory loss is from a disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s not funny anymore.
As the Baby Boomer population ages, the rise in dementia is dramatically increasing. In 2019, an estimated 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s dementia. Currently, one in 10 people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia. This is devastating for families when Grandma doesn’t remember the names of her grandchildren and doesn’t even know who they are. It’s a challenge for adults who find themselves sandwiched in the middle—raising their children while at the same time caring for their aging parents.
As cognitive function deteriorates, it is often unsafe for the person to live alone. Leaving doors unlocked, burners on, and forgetting daily hygiene routines mean it’s time for caregivers to step in. Some families are able to bring a grandparent into their homes, but that is not always possible. Many people affected by memory loss need to move to a facility that specializes in caring for dementia patients.
Having a loved one with dementia is heart wrenching for families. As the grandparent’s memory fails, they may experience personality changes and changes in their relationships. How do parents explain to their children that Grandma or Grandpa doesn’t know them anymore. Some forms of dementia even result in a loss of verbal communication. It’s a topic that is difficult to address, but almost everyone knows someone who is affected by this disease.
There are no easy answers, but here are some tips that may help:
- Explain to your children that Grandma or Grandpa is sick, but it’s not a cold or flu that you can catch from someone else. Their mind/brain is not working the way it used to and it makes them forget things—even their name. Answer your child’s questions the best that you can. If you don’t know the answer, seek it out together. The more children understand why their grandparent is acting differently, the more they will be able to accept these changes.
- People with memory loss often lack comprehension of words or sentences, but they may respond to your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Smiling often, holding their hand, and speaking slowly and softly will be comforting to a loved one. Explain to children that being gentle with their grandparent is the best way to treat them.
- People with dementia often remember things from their past like a favorite song or game. Sometimes they exhibit childlike mannerisms. Children can enjoy playing games or doing childlike activities with their grandparents and find positive ways to interact with them. If Grandma smiles when you sing her favorite song, children will notice her smile and be delighted.
- When Grandma or Grandpa believe something that is not true, don’t try to explain or help them understand reality. If Grandma thinks she works in the kitchen, or Grandpa thinks he fixed the front door, these may be fantasies but it’s what their minds believe. One time my son called my mother on a Sunday night in February. She told him she was alone at the family’s summer cottage and wondered when my sister was coming. My son told her to stay where she was, and he would call my sister. He called my sister, but also called the nursing home where my mother lived. A caregiver went to her room immediately to be with her. Always go along with their perception of reality and don’t try to explain, as that will make them frustrated and more confused.
- Children love arts and crafts. Have your children make cards or pictures while visiting Grandma or make them ahead of time to leave in her room. Another idea is to find old photos and make a memory book. Celebrate holidays and special events together with fun activities and decorations. Many nursing homes have holiday events for families that children can enjoy.
- Remind your children that even though their grandparent seems different, the love they have never changes. Share stories with your children of how their grandparent cared for them when they were babies or toddlers. Even if your children were too young to remember these stories, they will still love hearing them. Tell them that Grandma or Grandpa cared for your family for many years. Now it’s time for the family to take care of them.
- Use resources such as picture books that tell stories of grandparents who develop dementia. Many of these stories show that as Grandma or Grandpa becomes forgetful, there are still positive ways to enjoy their relationship. I Love You to the Stars: When Grandma Forgets, Love Remembers is inspired by a true story and written to help parents and children understand that even though the relationship may change, love will always last. My prayer is that families who have a loved one with memory loss will find comfort and hope in the pages of this sweet story.
Crystal Bowman is a bestselling, award-winning author of more than 100 books for children including I Love You to the Stars: When Grandma Forgets, Love Remembers (Kregel Publishing 2020) and 4 nonfiction books for women. She also writes lyrics for children’s piano music and stories for Clubhouse Jr Magazine. She enjoys walking, eating ice cream, and hugging her seven grandkids.
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