Helping children cope with caring for aging grandparents

Many children watch their grandparents go through the aging process. Some grandparents live nearby and others actually end up moving in with the family. This can be a beautiful and valuable life experience for children.

Children can benefit in a number of ways from being an active participant in their grandparent’s aging process:

  • Naturally develop a sense of empathy
  • Have less fear about aging and death
  • Learn from the wisdom of their grandparents
  • Feel valued and loved
  • Learn how to care for others in a practical way
  • Build a nurturing and strong relationship with their grandparents

While many adults look back on treasured childhood memories of spending time with their aging grandparents, some remember very negative experiences. This often happens if the child is misinformed, feels neglected by parents who are spending time taking care of aging grandparents, or they are put in roles that are inappropriate for their age. This can happen inadvertently, so it is important for you as a parent to be conscious of how your child perceives things and work to develop a positive healthy environment for them.

Share information in an age-appropriate way

Insulin needles and breathing machines are just a few things that can frighten children. It is important to offer age-appropriate explanations of medical treatments, medical conditions and other special needs. Talk to your children about why Grandma needs help taking a bath and why Grandpa has difficulty remembering their names. Appropriate information will help children process their experience in a healthy way.

Be honest about the aging process and expect children to ask about dying and death. Death is a natural fear for children so talk with them openly about dying and death. If Nana has been told she has 3 months to live, don’t give your children false expectations that she’ll live longer. This will cause them to not trust you and also make the natural cycle of life more confusing and scary.

Assign age-appropriate responsibilities

Many kids are eager to help take care of their aging grandparents. This is a great way to nurture their sense of empathy and teach them about helping others. Be sure to pick age-appropriate activities. For example:

Small children: Bring snacks or other items to Grandma. Pick up items Grandma or Grandpa accidentally drop on the floor.

Older children: Turn lights on and off. Help Grandpa put on his shoes and hand him his cane. Dial the phone for Grandma or read her mail out loud to her.

Teenagers: If Grandma and Grandpa live independently, mow their lawn and take out the trash.

Taking care of others can be extremely time consuming and hectic. Sometimes we end up putting our children in the position of doing tasks that should be done by us or other adults. These tasks include bathing, administering medications, and helping with toileting. It is okay to need help with these things, but instead of asking your children to help, look for senior caregivers who offer the services you need.

Keep it fun

It is important to remember that kids should enjoy the time they spend with their grandparents. It shouldn’t be a dreaded chore. Help them build memories by encouraging them to play games together or read books. Sometimes Grandma or Grandpa are perfect for helping with homework—especially as listeners for grade-school children who need to read out loud to an adult. Encourage activities that will be enjoyable for everyone.

A final thought…

Remember, it can be challenging to care for even the most wonderful grandparents and this can have a positive or negative effect on your children. Communicating well is the key to making it a positive experience for them. Also, be sure to find ways for your children to help out while enjoying time with their grandparents.

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