Dude, What’s Going On With Grandpa? Talking With Teens About Alzheimer’s Disease



Teenage years are already complicated ones.  Toss in a grandparent or close relative with Alzheimer’s disease and the issues of driving, varsity sports, the latest fashions, gadgets, acne, social websites, braces and of course, dating are suddenly not so bad to deal with after all. 

Parents tend to go for the extremes when it comes to talking with teens about Alzheimer’s disease. Either they say nothing and almost act like if they don’t mention it, then eventually grandpa will come back to himself.  Or, they burden the teen with all of the information at once AND expect the teen to grasp it and instantly become co-caregivers.  Family dynamics are different and teens are different.  There are also variables such as the teen’s relationship with the affected person; whether or not the affected person lives with or in close proximity to the teen and how the disease is manifesting itself.

Before we get to the suggestions, just a note or four about teenagers in general. 

(1)   Teenage years are charcterized by the need to gain independence.

(2)   Teenagers are smarter than we think they are.

(3)   Teenagers need you much more than you think they do.

(4)   Teenagers tend to think and feel w-a-y more deeply than they appear to.

With those notes tucked into your back pocket, let’s look at some ways that we can talk with teens and help them to navigate the difficult truth:  Grandpa has Alzheimer’s disease.

Your teenager has probably at least heard of Alzheimer’s disease. Explain that it is a disease of the brain.  It is not just getting older or having “senior moments.”  In short, the brain cells die slowly and grandpa will lose various abilities as different parts of his brain are impacted.  Encourage your teen to do her own research and learn about the disease, and possibly present her findings to the family.

Encourage your teen to explore and express his feelings (see #4).  Let him know that it’s okay to be sad, angry and confused.  Your teen may feel jealousy about the amount of time and attention that the affected person is getting. He may feel guilty for getting mad or frustrated. He definitely may feel embarrassed if grandpa is given to strange behaviors.

  • The shared journal is a great idea. Take turns writing your thoughts and feelings about grandpa’s Alzheimer’s disease.  This exercise can open communication in other areas.
  • Penny For Your Thoughts?  When things get rough, and the communication slows down, agree that one of you can give the other a penny. That signals that you will take some time to sit down, regroup and TALK about what you are feeling.

Be available and present for your teen (see #3).  You, no doubt are stretched.  However, it is really important that you take some time just for your teen, just the two of you.  Hit the mall, play a game, watch a movie, talk.  Just be there so that your teen feels supported and loved through the ups, downs and changes.

Ask your teen for help (see #1, #2).  Tell her what needs to be done and solicit her participation and engagement in the caregiving process.  If there is something specific that you need her to do, then ask, but you may also want to provide a list of things that she can do and encourage her to select the one or ones she is willing and able to do. That way, she understands that she needs to pitch in, but is allowed to select how she’ll help out.  You might also leave the question open ended and allow your teen to evaluate the situation and see how she might be able to help.

Help your teen maintain as much normalcy as possible. (this one covers notes 1-4).  Everything is changing – the family dynamics, grandpa, and your teen.  So, it’s important that, when practical, some things stay the same.  Help your teen to continue soccor, cheerleading, after school job, etc. These are good outlets for your teen to just be a teenager.   

There really is no formula.  The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and revisit these issues as time progresses.

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Comments

  1. Family illness is tough on everyone and teens are in an awkward position as they are not quite adults, but are expected to be mature and helpful. Then on the other hand, you can’t treat them like little children. Definitely a tightrope, but we can’t leave them out.

    Vinette–Thanks, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep the teens IN the loop. It’s so easy to miss them in the drama of caregiving.

    Tina–You are so right. The shared journal can open so many doors. Keep me posted, I’d love to hear if you know of anyone who tries it.

  2. This really is an awesome post. The shared journal is a concept that can be applied to many areas to help families communicate. I will be sharing this with other. Thanks very much.

  3. This article provides such a wealth of information! We almost never address these young sufferers of this awful disease. What a powerful tool for parents to use in teaching their teens about grandparents with Alzheimer’s. Well Done Loretta!

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