4 Lessons Children Can Teach Us About Dealing With Alzheimer’s

“Grown-ups don’t always understand the important stuff.” Annie Donaghy was just 10 when she said this. I think she was right. Here in the UK she became something of a YouTube sensation when she spoke at a fundraiser in York about her nana (or grandma) who developed Alzheimer’s at 58.

If you watch the clip you can see Annie telling an audience of 800 how her nana is still nana, even though she has Alzheimer’s. She says nana still looks the same, still dances to the radio, still ice-skates backwards, still lets her watch TV programmes no matter “how dreadful” they are.

Annie’s description of her grandma is a brilliant exposition of how we should all view someone with dementia – seeing the individual first, not the condition, recognising what she can do, not what she can’t, helping when necessary. In Annie’s words, “Nana forgets, so I remember.”

[WATCH Liz Hernandez Talk About Seeing Her Mother As Separate From the Disease She Had]

Annie got me thinking about the different lessons that children – with their fresh, unself-conscious, non-judgmental view of life – can teach adults, supposedly older and wiser than them, when it comes to dementia. Here are a few of them.

1. First, very young children are blissfully unaware of stigma and the whispered asides and generally unthinking unkindness that it brings. To them, making a mess, putting your jumper on the wrong way round or saying something silly is simply fun. They roll with it, enjoy it, join in. In fact, they unwittingly do all the things that the very best in dementia care training tells us to do.

2. Secondly, they have a wonderful can-do attitude to life. In her book, What Flowers Remember, American author Shannon Wiersbitzky comes at dementia from a child’s perspective. Thirteen-year-old Delia finds it incomprehensible that her adopted grandpa “Old Red” should forget his late wife Rosalea.

“No one could forget something that important to them. They just couldn’t,” she says. It’s what we adults so often think when confronted with the truth of dementia; but instead of voicing our disbelief as young Delia does, we turn to anger or simply turn away – and stigma and fear begin to breed.

Delia, with a child’s enthusiasm, comes up with a plan: to collect Old Red’s memories and write them down for him.  In doing so she discovers wonderful, previously unknown facts about him – she also discovers that the elderly residents of Tucker’s Ferry seem to have all the time in the world and like nothing more than to chat. She collects their stories and photographs of Old Red and, when he has to move into a nursing home, she takes them to him and creates what she calls his “remembering wall.” She is of course enacting the very best in person-centred care.

[10 Profound Lessons I Learned From College Students Working With Alzheimer’s Patients]

3. Thirdly, children see people for who they are. When Suzy Webster’s mum developed dementia, Suzy and her husband adapted their home so that she could come and live with them and their two young daughters. Suzy has spoken of how much she’s learnt from her little girls. “They just see my mum; they don’t think about who she was before and who she might be at the end.”

4. Fourthly, they share the same view of life. The practical world of the very young and those with dementia is relatively small – mainly the world of the home and the garden – while their imaginary worlds hold infinite possibilities which others around them often fail to comprehend. Both groups’ sense of time is unlike that of hard-pressed adults rushing about trying not to be late: the very young and the very old tend to live more in the moment, savouring the here and now, enjoying a chat, rather than worrying about what was or might be.

But perhaps the most poignant affinity between the very young and those with dementia lies in their uninhibited displays of emotion.  When verbal communication is difficult (because of dementia) or undeveloped (as in very young children), other ways have to be found to relay feelings, which are still very much there. Frustration and fear can lead to aggressive, distressing behaviour, of which Old Red shows one or two flashes in What Flowers Remember, but I’m talking about positive emotions.

Comforting hugs are one way, eye contact and body language another. Children are pretty good at these – unlike many of us more reserved grown-ups. Suzy Webster’s six-year-old daughter told her mum that grandma’s dementia was just part of who she was. “She’s good at cuddling, that’s what is important”.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

Yes, it’s definitely worth listening to what children say and watching what they do. They have a lot to teach us. They understand the important stuff.


{Image credit: Pixabay}


About the Author

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Pippa Kelly is an award-winning blogger and writer on elderly care and dementia based in London. Her short stories and articles have appeared in numerous UK national newspapers and magazines including The Times, The Sunday Express, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Evening Standard, The Spectator, The Guardian, Mslexia. She also blogs for The Huffington Post, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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