Photo by Alex Green

When an elderly relative is ill, it is important that children receive support and understanding of the situation. Many children have close relationships with siblings or grandparents. They hear conversations, observe increased activity for doctor appointments, and unfamiliar people if home hospice is involved. They know something is wrong. Watching a loved one be ill or die is difficult, but children need special attention in these situations.

In my book, One Caregiver’s Journey, I tell how my nieces and their children often visited my mother. My mother had a true connection and affinity for her grand and great-grandchildren. She would carry on conversations and laugh, which ensured the connections and bonds remained cemented. As she began to decline, there was some concern that she didn’t remember their names. As much as we could, we endeavored to tell them about advanced dementia and how it affects the elderly mind. We assured them she didn’t love them any less because she didn’t call them by name. My mother was 102 at the time of her death, so there was no need for a secret that she had lived a full life and soon would be their angel.

When elder illness affects children, much caution and care are required to make the situation transparent and not scary to the child. There are many positive sides to sharing appropriate information with children.
The most important one is that we do not want them to have increased fears or uncertainty. Children:

  1. Trust that adults will share information that is important to them.
  2. Must be allowed to work through their own feelings.
  3. should not feel isolated or left out.
  4. Must be able to ask questions freely, and
  5. Must be able to help out with caregiving in their own way.

So long as children have verbal skills and can communicate, they should be told of treatment, know the illness by name and understand the prognosis. Children understand death differently, but isn’t it better for them to know in an honest way to alleviate adding drama and fear to an already difficult situation?

When elder illness affects children, families will know what the child will understand about the situation. If the relative is in hospice, the social worker can provide information to guide you through the conversation. Parents can turn to clergy or teachers for support as well. Some advice for adults include:

Plan the Conversation:
Think about the best time and place to discuss the situation. Know what you want to say, and be aware that the tone of your voice is consoling, soft and honest. Give your child time to comprehend and process the information. Let them ask questions and let them cry.

Start the Conversation:
If the child is young, keep it simple. “Grandma has a disease called diabetes. She is sick, and we are visiting the doctor often to learn how to care for her better.” Give the child time to digest and understand the information. Observe their reaction, answer their questions, and if optimism is realistic, be optimistic. Let them know how they can help. Tell them if they can expect changes to be made, such as oxygen or hospice personnel coming in and out. Above all, tell them if the disease is contagious.

While you may be preoccupied with the situation of the elder relative, know you must also focus on the child. Keeping your child healthy when elder illness affects them is also important. Spend quality time with them. Give them hugs, and if you’re caregiving to an ill relative, let them know how much you miss spending time with them. Allow the child to express fear, anger, sadness, or worry, knowing they may not be able to label their feelings. If the child is more whiny or clingy, be accepting of the changes. Find ways they can help, such as pushing a wheelchair or carrying a backpack. Let them visit the hospital, but explain in advance if a family member looks different or won’t respond to their presence with their usual joy.

It might be a good idea to tell the child’s teachers or after-school caregiver about the situation. They may be in a trusting relationship with the child to be of tremendous support. However, we can help a child understand a family member’s illness can be challenging. But by talking to them about the elder relative’s illness, you may relieve fear, legitimize their feelings, and send a clear message that they are truly a respected and integral part of the family.

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