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Planning Retirement Online

Grandparents do make a difference - 18

January 2011



Each month we bring you this special column on grandparenting written by our expert contributor Jeanne Davis.  

This month she writes about:-

Grandparents with Dementia and their Grandchildren

If you have a subject you would like covered by Jeanne, please email us at: 


Grandparents with Dementia and their Grandchildren

Does Grandad know who I am?

“Hello grandad!” Two year old Katie threads her way through the group of elderly people at the day centre, and climbs onto the lap of one man. He sings: “Who’s my pretty girl?” a song he used to sing to his own children, as he bounces her on his knee. They both smile with delight. Her grandad is not able to remember her name but there can be no doubt that theirs is a very strong relationship.

There are estimated to be about 820,000 people with dementia in this country, and it has been defined by the government as a “national priority”. As almost all those affected are older people, most of them will be grandparents and perhaps great grandparents. If a grandparent’s relationship with a grandchild is so often based around sharing memories, what happens when these memories fail? And how might a child feel when a respected adult jumbles their words, tells the same story over and over again, or does not know how to do even the simplest things? Or worse, when a grandparents shows confusing and frightening emotions, such as aggression, suspicion, and unexplained sadness.

Surprisingly, contact with grandchildren is not addressed in the National Dementia Strategy, which was launched by the government in February 2009 after wide consultation. That is why Dr, David Pitcher, Honorary Social Work Adviser to the Grandparents’ Association began his own inquiry and produced a very helpful leaflet exploring the ways in which the grandparent –grandchild relationship can be affected by dementia. He offers, too, some very helpful ideas for the families for coping.

“It’s a Must “

There are many stories of how residential homes, and sometimes parents, too, have felt that young children should be kept away from people with dementia: “This is no place for a child.” Rosemarie Stephens, who runs The Memory Conservatory Centre in Plymouth, says supporting the relationship with grandchildren is essential. “It’s a must”. Rosemarie encourages grandparents and grandchildren to do simple things, tactile things together, such as making cakes, listening to music, or looking at old photos. The grandparents are confident as they think about their past, and the grandchildren learn about their own heritage at the same time. Sometimes, the timing of the visits has to be carefully planned to avoid the times (often just before it gets dark) when a grandparent may be unsettled.

Parents will sometimes say that it is too distressing for them to visit because their parent will not remember the child’s name, or even appear to recognise them. However, says Rosemarie, “There’s no such thing on earth as them not knowing who you are”. Touch, tone of voice, and a familiar, unhurried routine, all help. It can help to wear recognisable clothes. Gentle conversation can “just flow” with young children, she says. A grandmother’s face will light up as she feeds a young baby: even if she could not say who the child is, she is back to where she feels comfortable, as she once cared for her own young children.

Benefits for the Grandchildren

There are benefits for the grandchildren, too: they learn to be patient, and to understand that everyone, even some grownups need special care. In turn, their grandparent will often be content to sit for long periods of time engaged in repetitive play which other adults in their lives soon tire of. Most important, the children learn from their parents the importance of family bonds whatever the circumstances.

For Katie, however, her grandad is simply the person he is. Others of his grandchildren, who are now teenagers, have found it harder. They remember their grandfather as he used to be, and are upset to see such a change in him, in that he does not recognise them.

Holly and Jack: “Their relationship was so strong”

Holly is a young adult. Her grandfather, Jack, has recently died. His deterioration happened rapidly, and so had to be managed differently than it was in Katie’s family. There had always been a strong bond between Holly and her Grandfather. Holly has a physical disability, and they had always done colouring together. Though Jack became ill, they continued to colour and draw. Holly seemed less affected by external appearances, such as her grandfather’s gaunt appearance, than others.

It was important to explain everything to a young adult like Holly, her mother says, and for her to understand that dementia is an illness. Having a name for the illness made it easier for Holly to accept, and also to explain to others. This helped to make sense of the deterioration, and to know what would happen.

Some Helpful Ideas

  • Listen carefully to what your child is saying about dementia, and explain what is happening in a child centred way.
  • Your child or grandchild may have some fears and questions which are very real to them, such as: ‘Will I catch it?’ ‘Does Grandma still love me?’ ‘Why can’t medicine make my grandparent better?’ An older child can get a sense of control by finding out the scientific facts about dementia.
  • Choose the right time to visit. Even if a grandparent has shown signs of aggression, much will depend on the time of day, and other factors. If possible, shorter but regular visits are best.
  • Your child or grandchild may feel embarrassed, or be teased by others. Ensure friends’ parents, and the school, are aware of the situation.
  • Sit down regularly as a family – if possible, as a wider family – to discuss matters.
  • Remember that the other grandparent, who is likely to be the primary carer, also needs your support.

Resources: For copies of the leaflet Does Grandad know who I am? email If you would like some advice, telephone the Helpline: 0845 4349585



Previous articles in the series:


1. Grandparents do make a difference
2. When Grandparents are on duty
3. To Discipline or not
4. The long Distance Grandparent
5. When the parents separate
6. Second time around
7. Who baby-sits?
8. Favouring one grandchild more than the others
9. Should Grandparents who provide child care receive financial assistance
10. A feast for mind and body for you and the grandchildren at half term
11. Jealous grandparents
12. When you agree to help with childcare
13. Parents would like grandparents to live closer
14. Grandparents and teen grandchildren
15. Saga of Skype
16. And so do Great Aunts and Uncles!
17. How much do you spend on your grandchildren?
18. Grandparents with Dementia and their Grandchildren



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