When a Grandparent Is Ill: 8 Little Steps to Make it Easier on the Kids (and You)

ellenBy Ellen Iscoe, Ph.D.

You may realize it gradually or find out through a dreaded call in the middle of the night. Your mother or father is ill, no longer the healthy family member you and your children are accustomed to. With all the emotions you may experience and details you might need to attend to, you also have to consider how to help your child cope with the fact that Grandpa or Grandma is sick. Here are some things to keep in mind to help your child get accustomed to this unwelcome bit of news.

First, keep it simple. You may be getting an education in your parent’s condition, but your child will do best with just the basics. “Grandma’s heart isn’t working so well,” is more meaningful to a youngster than a description of cardiac arrhythmia. “Grandpa has a problem that makes it hard for him to take care of himself,” is enough explanation for why he is going to a nursing home. Once you provide the basics, you can follow your child’s lead about how much information she needs.

Emphasize age. The more a child can attribute the illness to old age, the less likely she is to generalize anxiety and worry about her own or her parents’ health. To a young child, all grown-ups seem old. Help your child understand that a grandparent is of an older generation than her parents are – much older. Use a concrete example such as explaining that Grandpa was the grown-up who helped you learn to tie your shoes when you were little.

Stick with NOW. Young children are often oriented towards the “right now.” While you may be worried about the implications of your parent’s situation, your child will be best served with information about today and tomorrow: “We will visit Mawmaw tomorrow and then go home for dinner.”

Acknowledge concerns. “Mommy, Grandma smells bad,” “I don’t like to visit Granddad because he looks funny,” “Nana is boring,” are not the sort of things we like to hear our children say, even if we agree. Accept your child’s comment, maybe even with a conspiratorial look or smile. Avoid a lecture, but make certain your child understands that he wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by saying something negative to them in person.

Take care of yourself. A decline in your parent’s health is probably harder on you than on your child, even if you are not directly providing health care. Do what you can to reduce stress in other areas of your life. Cook from the freezer, take a walk before getting the kids from aftercare, ease up on your rules about screen time for the kids so you can talk with a friend or zone out on Facebook. Consider setting up a little extra time with a babysitter, or let the friend who offers to help have pizza with the kids while you take some time to nurture yourself.

Identify actions. Young children want to help. Identify concrete, specific contributions your youngster can make. A drawing, a card or a poem might not change Grandma’s health, but it may make everyone feel better. Cookies may make the nursing home staff happy, even if the grandparent is on a restricted diet. For a longer term project, a collage of pictures or words entitled “50 things we love about Grandpa” will keep everyone busy. Young children appreciate routine; pick a certain time of day to pray for or send loving thoughts to the ailing grandparent.

Coping strategies. A little regression, such as clinginess and whining, trouble separating at bedtime or the need for more assistance in self-care like toileting, bathing or doing school work, is to be expected anytime there are major household stressors. A sympathetic response such as, “These are some pretty tough times,” or, “Being big (or 6 years old) is a lot of work sometimes,” is more likely to help a child maintain age-appropriate skills than scolding or even encouragement. Extra time for cuddling, or fighting bad guys on the computer together, may make you both feel better.

And finally, balance honesty and hope. Your child relies on you for the truth. No matter how much you want things to resolve happily, your reliability is of vital importance to your child. Rather than promising that Grammy will be fine, use phrases like, “The doctors are doing everything they can,” and, “We’ll have to be patient and see how things go.” Provide a helpful perspective by identifying possible improvements, “Maybe next week we will be able to visit.” But remind your young children that, “When you are very, very old, it is hard to get better fast.”

Modified and posted with permission from Washington Parent. The original version was published in 2007.

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