Why doesn’t Grandpa play ball with me anymore? Why doesn’t Grandma take me for walks like she used to? Why can’t I go spend the week at Grandma and Grandpa’s house this summer?
As parents, these are difficult questions to hear from our children as our own parents age. But for children, the answers we provide and how we discuss them can make the difference between our kids continuing to enjoy a healthy relationship with grandparents for as long as possible or being confused by the unknown.
What to expect
Everyone ages differently, but certain changes have the most impact on grandchildren. One of the first differences is a change in energy.
Rebecca Dingfelder, a clinical psychologist with the Triangle Center for Behavioral Health, says this can be most noticeable to children during extended time with grandparents when they need more frequent breaks decline a request to play.
Another common change involves declining health. According to Mary Warren, Aging Program coordinator for the Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, children “may express fear or disgust if the older person has obvious disabilities or differences that the child has not seen before or doesn’t understand.”
Health problems can also include mental changes. Dingfelder suggests that this can be difficult for grandchildren because they don’t understand why grandparents may have trouble remembering things, people or important events, or that they may seem angry or sad. In addition, changes in housing for a grandparent may have a significant impact on grandchildren.
When to start talking
It may be difficult to know when to start talking about grandparents’ changes with children. According to the psychologists and psychiatrist at Peak Development Associates in Apex, it’s important to start discussions with children older than 3 as the changes begin.
Kristi Butler, a Raleigh mom, was able to involve her four children in the caregiving process for their great-grandparents. She says life transitions are inevitable, and children need help processing them. “Learning to discuss what’s happening and how they feel is important,” Butler says.
Starting the conversation
Once you begin addressing grandparents’ changes, it’s important to provide explanations in an open, honest and age-appropriate way. Dingfelder suggests allowing your children to guide the discussions. “Answer what they ask without going into excessive detail or going above their developmental level,” she says.
Warren encourages parents to offer reassurance that the grandparent’s love doesn’t change because of where they live or the physical changes of getting older. Also explain how changes might affect the grandparent’s interactions with the child, and suggest alternatives.
For example, if a grandparent can no longer pick up a grandchild, the staff at Peak Development Associates offers suggesting that Grandma would still love for the child to sit on her lap or sit beside her.
A natural part of life
If a health condition is considered terminal, Warren says the diagnosis and initial changes can be an opportunity to ease into a discussion about death as a natural part of life. This gives parents a chance to answer questions children may have, and to share their thoughts about heaven and what happens when we die.
Lorine Lewis is a Raleigh mother of a 14-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Her mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and recently stopped treatment. She says that while this has been a difficult change and diagnosis for her children to accept, she “doesn’t believe in sheltering them” beyond reason. She advises parents to “know your child and how much information they’re capable of handling.”
When Lewis’ son questioned why his grandfather had turned into a “Crabby Patty lately,” she explained that her parents have been married “for quite a while and it’s hard for Grandpa to deal with the idea that he may be alone with his illnesses when