More than 35 years ago, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed that National Grandparents Day would be celebrated annually on the first Sunday after Labor Day. Ever since, our nation has been honoring the special bond between grandchildren and grandparents. The idea was originated by Marian McQuade, whose intention was to focus on seniors living in nursing homes wanting companionship.
There are numerous ways grandchildren can share love and gratitude to their grandparents. But what happens when the grandparent has Alzheimer's or a related form of memory loss and can no longer recall the name of their grandchild, or may no longer remember that they have a grandchild?
Despite the challenges presented by memory loss, there are still things you and your child can do to create and preserve precious memories. Here are some tips to make not only Grandparents Day, but any day spent together, extra special for the grandchild and their grandparent with memory loss.
1. Educate your child about memory loss and how it affects a person.
When I was a child, my grandfather who had dementia lived with us. My family journeyed through his stages of memory loss without the benefit of all the educational resources that are available today. At that time, memory loss was simply referred to as senility. I learned from my parents that it was more important to show unconditional love and acceptance than to focus on his memory lapses. It wasn't until much later in life that I truly realized and appreciated what they were really teaching me was to focus first and foremost on his personhood -- who he still was and all the love and possibilities that remained despite his memory loss.
Fortunately, now, we have evidence-based educational materials and supportive resources, such as the Alzheimer's Association. We know more about how the disease affects the brain and changes memory, mood and personality. We also know that no two people are affected in the exact same way.
A series of informative videos, especially for kids, have been created by the Alzheimer's Association to help them understand that they are not alone. They'll see and hear other children and teens tell their stories and will gain a better understanding of what to expect as Alzheimer's progresses.
For younger children, such as Maria Shriver's What's Happening to Grandpa?, are a powerful way to teach them about dementia, engage them in conversation and encourage them to express their feelings.
2. Acknowledge the child's feelings.
It is only natural for a child or teen, or for that matter just about anyone, to feel unsure, angry, sad and frightened by all the changes their loved one with memory loss is going through. Children can also sense how much it affects their parents and the larger family unit.
This is why it's important to encourage them to talk about it. There is no right or wrong way to feel; we just need to listen and acknowledge that it is okay to feel the way they do. Realize that just as you may be going through the stages of grief, including denial, anger, guilt, sadness and acceptance, a child can experience those same emotions because they are gradually losing the grandparent they once knew.
3. Teach your child how to communicate in a meaningful way.
Let them know that it's okay to try to greet their grandparent in the same way they always have, whether that was through a hug or a high five, however explain there might be times when grandma or grandpa will no longer remember that special way of saying hello or goodbye.
Remind them to make eye contact, and that there might even be times when they will need to introduce themselves. Demonstrate or role play for them to show that, by speaking more slowly and clearly, we can have meaningful and engaging communication. Also, kindly emphasize to them to avoid correcting or arguing if their grandparent says or does something that does not make sense to them.
4. Plan something "Grand."
Have your child engage and connect with their grandparent through activities. Generations United provides ideas for making Grandparents Day grand! To help preserve their dignity and make the activity meaningful, you may need to tailor activities to be as failure-free as possible for a grandparent with memory loss.
Tap into their remaining interests, hobbies, skills and abilities and simplify those activities to make them enjoyable. For example, if a grandparent previously enjoyed taking their grandchild to baseball games, but due to memory loss can no longer enjoy the crowds, noise or stimulation, you could take them to a little league game. Or they might prefer to watch a game together on TV while enjoying many of the same foods and snacks they shared at the ballpark.
Then save these special memories and occasions. Take pictures or ask the child to start a scrapbook, journal or 'Grand Memories Book' filled with of all the things they enjoy doing with their grandparent. These items will serve to be great opportunities for reminiscing during future visits, and someday, you and your child will look back with joy on these magical moments.
5. Turn the experience into a call-to-action moment.
When something like Alzheimer's negatively impacts the life of a loved one, we can choose to let it bring us down or we can use it to make something positive happen. Children can teach us a lot about making profoundly positive differences in the world. Every year, I see children demonstrating their love and support for a great cause by walking with parents and grandparents in the Walk to End Alzheimer's on the National Mall. Watch this inspiring video on how children have started movements in schools by starting purple week to raise Alzheimer's awareness and support much needed research.
With your guidance, encouragement and support, your child will make not only this Grandparents Day but any day they spend with their grandparent special.