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Health articles
  Helping Children Understand Alzheimer's Disease

 

 

When a family member has Alzheimer's disease, it affects everyone in the family, including children and grandchildren. Giving children understandable information about Alzheimer's disease can help them cope with Alzheimer's in their family.

The Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center offers some suggestions about discussing dementia with younger family members:

  • Answer children's questions simply and honestly. For example, you might tell a young child, "Grandma has an illness that makes it hard for her to remember things."
  • Help children to know that their feelings of sadness and anger are normal.
  • Comfort them. If children express guilt or feel that they may have done something to hurt their grandparent, reassure them that they did not cause the disease.

If the child lives in the same house as someone with Alzheimer's disease:

  • Do not expect a young child to help care for the person with Alzheimer's.
  • Make sure the child has time for his or her own interests and needs, such as playing with friends, going to school activities, or doing homework.
  • Make sure you spend time with your child, so he or she does not feel that all your attention is being given to the person with Alzheimer's.
  • Help the child understand your feelings. Be honest about your feelings when you talk with a child, but do not overwhelm him or her.

Many younger children will look to you to see how to act around the person with Alzheimer's. Show children they can still talk with the person, at least in the early stages of the disease. Doing fun things together, with parental supervision depending on the age of the child, can help both the child and the person with Alzheimer's. Here are some things they might do:

  • Walk in the neighborhood;
  • Do simple arts and crafts;
  • Play music;
  • Sing;
  • Look through photo albums; or, 
  • Read stories out loud.

However, in the later stages, the person with Alzheimer's may be completely unresponsive. This may be very hard for a child to understand. Some children might not talk about their negative feelings, but you may see changes in how they act. Problems at school, with friends, or at home can be signs that they are upset. You may want to ask a school counselor or a social worker to help a child understand what is happening and how to cope.

A teenager might find it very hard to accept how the person with Alzheimer's has changed. He or she might find the changes upsetting, and may not want to be around the older person. It is a good idea to talk with teenagers about their concerns and feelings. Do not force them to spend time with the person who has Alzheimer's. This could make things worse.

If the stress of living with someone who has Alzheimer's becomes too great for a child, talk to other family members or friends about helping out. Or, find out about, and consider using, respite care options available in your community. Then, both you and your child can get a much-needed break.

Combination of Few Friends and Loneliness Linked with Poor Mental and Physical Health among Older People

National study first to identify links for two different types of isolation

Chicago — Although not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks, research at the University of Chicago suggests. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don’t have the same health problems.

The study is the first to examine the relationships between health and two different types of isolation. Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need.

“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” said study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging.

However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. “The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support,” Waite explained.

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, Waite explained.

Among the study’s findings:

  • The most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated.
  • Older adults who feel least isolated are five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those who feel most isolated, regardless of their actual level of social connectedness.
  • Social disconnectedness is not related to mental health unless it brings feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Older adults who are able to withstand socially isolating circumstances or adjust their expectations so they do not develop strong feelings of loneliness may fare better, the study suggests. “We need to better understand how older adults adapt to changes in their social relationships,” Waite added.

The work is reported in the article, “Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation and Health Among Older Adults,” published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association. Waite conducted the study with lead author Erin York Cornwell, a Postdoctoral Associate in Sociology at Cornell University who completed her Ph.D. in Sociology at Chicago in 2008. .

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