Dementia; It can be a really tough subject to talk about whatever your age and even more so when talking to small children about the subject.
I used to work as a HCA in a residential care home where most of its residents suffered from Dementia or Alzheimer’s. Everyday we saw our residents becoming lost and confused, families devastated and heartbroken and some tough decisions being made. My grandfather developed Dementia in the last few years of his life. He went from forgetting where he put the dog leads to not knowing who we were and suffering from the most awful hallucinations. Seeing a family member deteriorate so quickly can be heart breaking, especially when it feels like that there is nothing that you can do.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a syndrome associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and it’s abilities. This includes problems with:
- Memory loss
- Thinking speed
- Mental ability
Sufferers can become agitated, depressed, withdrawn and have problems controlling their emotions. People with dementia can also suffer from hallucinations, seeing and hearing things that are not really there. This can be traumatic for the sufferer and to those who witness the people having the hallucinations.
Dementia can start as simple basic memory loss and confusion and it is important to take note if yourself, a friend or loved one starts to forget things more often. It can be easily missed in the early stages and dismissed as a ‘brain fog’ moment. If you suspect memory loss or confusion get the affected person to see a GP as soon as possible. Try not to be panicked as there can be other health problems that can mimic the early stages of dementia- water infections and depression for example.
Who Gets Dementia?
There are approximately 800,000 people living in the UK with dementia, and an estimated 36 million people worldwide. The population of the UK is growing fast, and our life expectancy is also rising. With more people living longer, pressures will only increase on the care sector, families and society when it comes to helping dementia sufferers. It’s currently Dementia Awareness Week (14th-20th May 2017) and you can find out more about this very special awareness week here.
Most people living with Dementia are over the age of 65, but sometimes a person who is younger can get dementia, but this does not happen very often. Most older people don’t get dementia, and just because a relative may have suffered from dementia it does not mean that you will.
Active Minds is a wonderful brand working with companies and charity organisations providing enjoyable activities for people living with dementia. They have been researching, designing and developing activity products to assist people living with dementia to help them lead an active, engaging and fulfilling life. People living in care homes can offer suffer from depression, boredom and loneliness. Seeing residents developing these problems can be awful to witness and many people struggle to understand how to ease these problems. Many care homes hire activity co-ordinators to work in the home, a wonderful and heartfelt job role, but it is often the families who would like to get more involved when it comes to making their relative’s elderly years more fulfilling.
Talking To Children About Dementia
Many children will be very confused when it comes to trying to understand Dementia (heck, even adults can be confused by the subject!) making it even more important that we approach the subject with care, honesty and in a loving and often humorous manner. While it can feel strange making the subject of dementia a light hearted one, this is often the best way to teach children about something and even more so when it is about a sensitive and rather daunting subject.
With the help of Active Minds, I sat at the kitchen table and had a heartfelt chat with my kids about Dementia. I have 3 small children aged 5, 4, and 2. I only really expected the 5 year old to understand what I was talking to them about, but there is certainly no harm in making the subject a family activity, involving the smaller kids. We had a packet of Forget-Me-Not seeds on the table, lots of fun decorating items, a plant pot and a watering can to decorate. My plan was to talk about Dementia and how it can make people forget things- hence the Forget-Me-Not seeds! While the kids painted, splashed glitter across the table and argued over stickers I would engage in conversation about this tricky subject.
How we started our conversation…
Mummy (me)- Girls, when you were babies you couldn’t walk, talk, eat or go to the toilet. You had to learn how to do all of these things! I had to help you all lots. I still have to help you all sometimes, even though you’re getting bigger. You learn how to do things because your brain has to grow and remember how to do those things. Can you think of anything else that your brain helps you to do?
Willow- I have to remember things at school, like how to spell things properly. And I will have to learn how to tie my laces one day.
Olive- I need to learn how to ride a bike. I’ll need little wheels to help at first.
Ivy- *she’s sat painting… her brain is currently working on learning that important hand-eye coordination*
This is a fabulous conversation starter. You can talk about how our brains can remember lots and lots of things, mostly things we do in day to day life.
When tackling an emotional subject such as dementia, keep small children positive. Keep playing with them, whilst you discuss the subject. Painting our plant pots, was the perfect distraction, but kept them listening to me at the same time.
Me- Some older people get something called Dementia. It means that even though they learnt lots of things when they were younger, their brain starts to forget these things. These older people can find it hard to do things that they used to do when they were young.
Willow- Like going to the toilet?
Me- Exactly! Mummy used to work as a carer. I used to help look after people who had dementia. That meant helping people onto the toilet!
Olive- You help Ivy on the toilet.
Me- That’s right. I also had to help people eat their dinner, get dressed and play games.
Willow- Did you paint their nails?
Me- I did if they asked me to! It made them feel fabulous and pretty.
When talking to small children, it helps to keep things short and sweet. Talking about something for too long can become boring and often stressful for the child, especially when discussing something so emotional.
Older children could work on extra activities about Dementia.Help them create a mind-map about all of the things that their brain has learnt, and how they would feel if they forgot how to do those things. Getting them to think about how it would feel to have Dementia, builds on compassion and understanding.
Think of activities that you could spend time doing, with a person who has Dementia. Active Minds has lots of wonderful activities that are specifically designed to help and engage with people who suffer from Dementia. Talking to a person with Dementia about the memories that you share together, play them their favourite music (I knew a lady who wouldn’t speak, but when she sat in her room and listened to her favourite music she would sing along to every word on the CD. That was all she would ever say.) Watch their favourite classic movie, play together with puzzles, board games or look through old photographs together. Even the most simple of activities can lift them from a dark place and make them feel normal again, even if just for a very short time. I used to do residents hair, nails and make up for the ladies, and I have been known to sit and discuss Navy boats and football with the boys!
I discussed with the girls that it’s nice to help the elderly stay in their own homes, because the thought of being moved away can be a very scary and confusing thing to experience. We discussed many ways how dementia sufferers can have their homes adapted to make independent living easier, such as having a Thyssenkrupp stair lift installed, removing any trip hazards such as rugs or trailing electrical wires or having simple handrails installed around rooms. Keeping a person independent can make such a difference to a person’s life once diagnosis has been made.
My girls are now aware of Dementia and what it means, who it affects, how it makes sufferers feel and what we can do to help, all in very basic terms. I shall revisit the subject again in a few years and go pay a visit to my old colleagues with the kids, so they can go and meet (and have fun!) with some of the residents. I hope that my children never fear or feel embarrassed around people with Dementia. I hope that they will respect and show love to those who may be feeling alone and vulnerable when living with this condition.
How will you talk to your kids about Dementia? Do you have any fun activities that you love doing with those you love who suffer from Dementia? Let me know in the comments box!
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