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June 19, 2007

Talking To Your Kids About Alzheimers

My stepmother has Alzheimer's.  It has been a slow and cruel progression for over five (maybe more) years.  My father was in denial for years, and then FINALLY faced the reality that she was terminally sick.  I don't think his denial is that uncommon.  Who really wants to admit that their spouse has this disease at the young age of sixty?  Denial is a better friend than reality; that the disease is outrageously cruel, it is debilitating and can and will divide a family.  Everyone has an opinion on how to care (or not care) for the family member who has Alzheimer's. No one really has the answers and the financial strains of caring for a family member with Alzheimer's is draining.  I have never heard of a family that has faced and handled this disease with grace and ease - if you exist, I would love to hear from you.

My father has decided to visit us for two days next week.  This is his first time leaving his wife for a few days with a caregiver.  We have begged him to visit for years, but he felt too guilty leaving her even for a few days.  (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)  This evening over dinner, I told my five and seven year old daughter's that their grandpa was finally coming out for a visit, alone.  I then had the discussion that their step grandmother (who they don't really know) has a very bad disease, Alzheimer's.  I gently explained that her brain is very sick and that she is dying.  Here were their questions:

  • Can't she just take medicine to get better?
  • Can I catch Alzheimers?
  • Did she get sick because she did not wash her hands?
  • How did she get Alzheimers?
  • Does she know who I am?

.... and then the one that really got me from my seven year old:

  • Couldn't they just put her to sleep so she won't be in any pain?  (We have had the discussions about putting our cat to sleep when she is old and not well).

It hit me. We treat our pets/animals better then we do humans.  Alzheimer's is so debilitating.  I am sure she would have chosen a different outcome then mood swings, memory loss, panic attacks, sun-downing, concoction of drugs to keep her calm for years and years.  I am sure that she would rather be at peace, than living like this day to day. Her body is fine, her mind is gone.....  She can (and probably will) live like this for years to come.

Since I was not prepared for these conversations, I did the best I could to answer everything that came my way.  I did not hold back (like I did with conversations about where babies come from).  I was honest. 

If you are looking for ways to talk to your children about Alzheimer's, go to the following sites.  I wish I read them before tonight....

Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers/HQ00216

Careguide http://www.thecareguide.com/Resources/ResourceDetails.aspx?section=MemoryLoss&itemid=611

Alzheimer Society http://www.alzheimer.ca/english/care/children.htm

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