How to help teens cope when a loved one has dementia

5 Ways to Help Teens Relate to Loved Ones With Dementia

By Jessica Farthing | March 1st, 2022

My mother was always focused on her relationship with her nine grandchildren. After her dementia diagnosis, we had to find different ways to communicate. These ideas worked for us.

I lived in Atlanta when my last two children were born. They were both boys, only 18 months apart, a rambunctious change of life for their older sister and our established house. Even distracted by the constant action of life with three children, I found myself longing for the big family we’d left in our hometown. I spoke with my mom every day about how I missed my siblings, and she was overjoyed when we made the decision to move back to Savannah. Finally, her nine grandchildren all lived in the same city.

Our years were filled with memories focused on the grandkids: their favorite popsicle flavors stocked in the freezer, the sandbox my dad built in the yard and my mom’s signature whistle at sporting events. The children grew into great teens, but as with many families, communication between all the ages wasn’t always easy. After my mother’s dementia diagnosis, it was time to find common ground between the grandparents and kids.

My brothers and sisters and I knew this would be challenging. Part of effective communication is the reaction to what’s being said, and mom wasn’t always appropriate for the situation. This resulted in frustration for her — as well as the children. We removed most complex conversations, focusing on shorter time periods and using all of her senses to bring joy. Instead of long talks about the kids plans for college, we talked about the view from her window. We didn’t ask her to talk for a long time about any subject or remember too many details. Keeping it simple lessened the pressure of the situation for both mom and the kids. Here are a few strategies that we found successful.

1. The Family Photo Album

Often, dementia causes a loved one to lose their recent memories. Dr. Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, professor of neurology at Boston University and co-author of Six Steps to Managing Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia spoke with Being Patient about the value of reviving older memories for connection, but also monitoring the situation.

“If you find these prompts are just providing frustration, and your mother is not able to pull the memory, then obviously that’s probably not the right thing to do,” he said of trying to stimulate memories. “If your question is: ‘Is it going to be helpful at a neurobiological level?’ I don’t think it’s critically important. I think the most important thing is to do it if it creates a moment of joy.”

2. Nature Walk

Walking outside supported by our teens ranged the gamut over the years, from a slow stroll to a push in a wheelchair. All those walks were peaceful and beneficial for both my mom and the kids. 

A review of research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that being sedentary can actually increase cognitive decline. Meanwhile, blood flow from exercise prevents a host of diseases and increases brain function, leading to better whole body health. In one small study of assisted living residents with cognitive impairment, researchers explored the benefits of replacing 10 minutes of sitting with 10 minutes of light walking, three times a week. This simple intervention, the team found, significantly improved older adults’ cognitive function, physical function and quality of life, compared to the control group.

3. Musical Interlude

In our family, music was always important. Several of the teens were musicians, so using their own interest to spend time with their grandmother was a perfect way to let them feel like they added value to her day. This ranged from an old record from her collection to my son’s rendition of “Little Wing” on the guitar. It also resulted in several opportunities to dance, which brought a big smile on my mother’s face.

In fact, music has the potential to boost both the person living with dementia’s and the caregiver’s mood. Séverine Samson, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Lille, Paris, shared with Being Patient the positive results from her team’s study which compared the effects of a music-based intervention against cooking in people living with Alzheimer’s.

It reduced the severity of the disorders a lot, particularly music, probably a little more than cooking. We also looked at caregiver distress and found a very strong impact. And, in some of those measures, after we stopped the intervention we found a return to the baseline level, so we really can relate the changes in our measures to the impact of the intervention.”

4. The Magic of Touch

My nieces and daughter loved their nails. We made a plan before they visited, using their interest in manicures for a girl’s day with their grandmother. I truly believed she felt like part of their group, pampered and pretty with her manicure. 

It was what the girls would do in their down time, so spending that time with their grandmother didn’t infringe on their schedule at all. Plus, there was a stress-relieving aspect for my mother: While more research is needed, touch is thought to reduce anxiety and depression for people living with dementia while adding to a sense of well-being.  

5. Furry Friends

According to Harvard Health, our serotonin, or the ‘feel good hormone,’ increases when we spend time around animals. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a proven way to combat depression. For my family, having our assorted dogs over to visit my mom allowed the focus to shift to the animal and not be placed on the cognitive ability to hold a conversation. There are a million non-verbal actions in dealing with an animal. She smiled, petted, held and brushed the best behaved and gave treats to the most active. It goes without saying, the best pet for this situation is the one that loves people in return. 

So much research has been devoted to the study of the effect of animals for people living with dementia. Benefits range from improved mood and resolution of behavior issues to increased weight gain and physical activity. AAT is so valuable that assisted living facilities have even begun to explore technology-based alternatives when real animals aren’t available, for example turning to robotic pets to make sure that the interaction is safe and accessible. (Our family had every shape and size of live dog to bring for visits with my mom, but we drew the line at the two horses.) 

With a little advanced planning and some family education, my mother’s struggle with dementia didn’t slow down her life with her treasured grandchildren. In fact, we created an environment that expanded their relationships and allowed the teens to understand the value they could bring.

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