How to help children affected by dementia
Find out how you can support children and young people who have a family member or someone close affected by dementia.
Explaining dementia to children and young people
Talk about it
It’s important to reassure children and young people that you are there for them, and you are in this situation together. This makes them feel that you also understand the difficulties they face. They need to know that, despite all the pressures, you still love them however preoccupied, sad or frustrated you may seem at times. It will help children and young people if you can make regular time to be with them, and provide opportunities where they can talk about any concerns they might have.
Here are some tips to help you discuss the situation effectively. Discussing means both talking and listening – and listening may be the most valuable part of the conversation.
- Explain the situation as clearly and calmly as possible.
- Try to use simple examples of behaviour that might seem strange, such as the person with dementia forgetting where they are or wearing a hat in bed.
- Focus on the things that the person can still do, as well as those that are becoming more difficult.
- Try to be patient. You may need to repeat your explanations on different occasions, depending on the age of the child or young person.
- Encourage the child or young person to ask questions, if they have them.
- Ask how the person’s dementia makes the child or young person feel. Listen carefully to what they have to say and try to imagine the situation from their point of view. This will help you find out exactly what might be worrying them.
- Give the child or young person plenty of reassurance and hugs, where appropriate.
- Don’t be afraid to use humour, if it feels appropriate. It often helps if you can laugh about the situation together.
If the person with dementia has received an early diagnosis, they may be able to talk about their dementia clearly to a child or young person. The same is true if the person has a form of dementia that does not affect their understanding and communication in the early stages. At any stage of the condition, the person can still hug the child or hold their hand, if that feels right. These can all be a good way of reducing fear and maintaining a positive relationship. The person may need support in talking to the child or young person, and it might be helpful if you are present when the conversation takes place.
Involve the child or young person
Try to find ways to involve the child or young person in providing care for the person with dementia, or just allow them to spend time with the person. This will help make the situation seem more normal for them, and will prevent them from feeling left out. However, it’s important that they continue with their normal lives so don’t give them too much responsibility, or let these tasks take up too much of their time.
- Let them know that simply being with the person with dementia and showing them love and affection is the most important thing that the child or young person can do.
- Try to ensure that the time they spend with the person is pleasurable. Activities could include going for a walk together, playing games, sorting objects, listening to music or making a scrapbook of past events.
- Talk about the person’s life and interests and show the child or young person photographs and mementos.
- Take photographs of the child or young person together with the person with dementia, to remind you all that there can be good times, even during the illness.
- Don’t leave a child or young person alone in charge, even briefly, unless you are sure that they are happy about this and will be able to cope.
- Make sure that the child or young person knows that you appreciate their help, and show them how they are helping the person with dementia.
- Be aware of things that the person with dementia may find upsetting or confusing, and be prepared to provide reassurance if these occur when a child or young person is present. Talk to the child or young person afterwards if the person does become upset or confused, to help them understand why this happened.
About this information
Last reviewed February 2013 by Toby Williamson, Head of Development and Later Life, Mental Health Foundation and Jenny La Fontaine, Senior Lecturer, Association for Dementia Studies, Institute of Health and Society, University of Worcester.
Last reviewed April 2016 by Alzheimer’s Society
Next review due: April 2019
This information has also been reviewed by people affected by dementia. A list of sources is available on request.