Children have the most wonderful effect on seniors and often have a special connection with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Nineteenth century novelist and journalist Fyodor Dostoevsky may have said it best; “The soul is healed by being with children.”
Many times, I’ve seen a child’s visit to a care facility bring a smile to a sad face and make previously dark and empty eyes absolutely sparkle with joy. In the most extreme cases, it’s astounding what a difference the presence of a child makes. Sometimes, in fact, it’s nothing short of magical.
On my mother’s worst days, the sight of a child would instantly turn her mood around. She would literally go from stoic to animated in the blink of an eye. The grandson of one of Mom’s caregivers often came in to visit, and regardless of what had been going on prior to his arrival, the ladies would undoubtedly perk up the moment they spotted him.
Apprehension is Normal
Parents often fear that children might be confused by unusual behaviors, unsure of how to communicate, or even frightened by an Alzheimer’s patient. These are common concerns, and it’s important to have an age appropriate discussion with the child prior to visiting. The Alzheimer’s Association’s website offers an entire section full of resources to help explain the disease and ease any apprehension children and teens might have. There are also a number of books on the topic, written specifically for kids.
Babies, on the other hand still bear that beautiful innocence that naturally wards off fear, and rarely do they even notice that something is awry. When children become accustomed to interacting with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at such a young age, they tend to be more accepting as they grow. It’s so beautiful to see older children interact with patients as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and that comes from being exposed to the disease at a young age.
Even in my mom’s last month of life, when she was often detached and completely unresponsive, the sight of her caregiver’s grandson brought a smile to her face and a gleam to her eyes. Although she had been unable to communicate for years, upon seeing the baby, she would often clearly say, “he’s so cute,” as she tugged on his little fingers and toes. She transformed from blank and lifeless to bright and animated as she made funny faces and laughed enthusiastically. The shift was something I wouldn’t have believed had I not seen it for myself. And it was as though the baby had an indescribable connection with her as well, on a level that the rest of us just couldn’t seem to explain.
It’s best to keep the visits short and avoid a lot of other commotion that might cause agitation. Observe the initial interaction closely while taking cues from both the child and the patient. Speak in a soft voice and smile; using non-verbal communication is often a very effective way of creating a calm, reassuring setting. If the circumstances are right, it really can be a beautiful experience for everyone involved.
How has your loved one responded to visits from children? We’d love to hear your personal experiences and suggestions.