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Written by:  Robyn Kinsey Mooring
Date: July 1, 2012

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 [Grandma] passes away."

Editor's Note: Shortly after this article went to print on June 13, Lewis' mother passed away in her own bed at home. She was 84.

When moving is necessary

If a move is in order, parents can help children understand why. They can also take steps to help strengthen bonds with grandparents. Peak Development Associates staff suggests talking about the changes in a matter-of-fact way, such as, "It's too hard to maintain a large house and at the new place they don't have to do yard work and housework."

If the move is further away from grandchildren, parents can reassure children that they will still visit. It's best to let grand-children know when the first visit will be and, if possible, tell them how often they can expect to visit.

Mary Cay Corr, an AARP volunteer and Chapel Hill grandmother, encourages grandchildren or parents to teach grandparents how to use Skype, FaceTime or other technology that allows for easy face-to-face communication. She says frequent or scheduled communication between grandchildren and grandparents allows them to keep in touch and adds meaning if they can actually see each other.

Heather Rusnak, executive director for Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, says most retirement or assisted living communities offer times when activities are planned that might facilitate structured interaction with grandparents, as well as amenities such as a ping pong table, swimming pool or putting green. This helps children see that their grandparents can still enjoy life and fun activities with them, just in a different location.

Teaching compassion and empathy

Physical changes associated with aging can range from fading eyesight to broken bones to being bedridden — all challenges that present plenty of opportunities to teach children how to be compassionate and empathetic.

Corr says when a grandparent's eyesight begins to fade, parents can encourage grandchildren to offer to read for a grandparent, which can reinforce the bond they share.

Simple sensitivity exercises may help a child better understand some of the physical challenges grandparents face.

Warren suggests having children try to walk or read with glasses smeared with Vaseline, or try to pick an item up with two fingers taped together.

Peak Development Associates' staff suggests asking adolescents to help with tasks that require strength or stamina, and having younger children run upstairs for needed items or pick up something that has dropped.

The Lewises also encourage their children to share what's going on in their lives with their grandfather and to discuss shared interests such as history.

It's important for children to learn that caring for each other is what families do, including during the aging process. To do this, they have to have at least some understanding of the changes taking place, which only comes by parents talking with them. As Butler says, "Spending time, laughing, talking, sharing memories and making memories meant a great deal to all of us."

Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and mother of two boys.


7 Ways to Strengthen Grand Relationships

  1. Ask grandparents to tell stories about their youth. Document these memories in a life history book or recording.
  2. Encourage grandparents to be involved in children's lives by watching their sports teams compete, attending play practices, etc.
  3. Start a new hobby or activity together, such as scrapbooking or taking a cooking class. Try making a list of world capitals and doing something from each capital such as trying a food from that area, drawing the country's flag, or reading a poem or story about the country.
  4. Exercise together — walk, swim or bike if possible.
  5. Teach Grandma or Grandpa to play Xbox!
  6. Work on a project together via Skype.
  7. Watch old videos together that feature grandparents and grandchildren, such as when the children were born and the grandparents visited, christenings,birthday parties and holiday celebrations

Suggested Resources

The following children’s books can help initiate discussions and explain changes with grandparents in child-friendly terms:

  • Always My Grandpa by Linda Scacco
  • The Fall of Freddy the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
  • Gran-Gran’s Best Trick: A Story for Children Who have Lost Someone They Love by L. Dwight Holden, M.D.
  • My Grandpa Had a Stroke by Dori Hillestad Butler
  • Striped Shirts and Flowered Pants by Barbara Schnurbush

— Robin Kinsey Mooring
.

Suggested Resources

The following children’s books can help initiate discussions and explain changes with grandparents in child-friendly terms:

Always My Grandpa by Linda Scacco

The Fall of Freddy the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia

Gran-Gran’s Best Trick: A Story for Children Who have Lost Someone They Love by L. Dwight Holden, M.D.

My Grandpa Had a Stroke by Dori Hillestad Butler

Striped Shirts and Flowered Pants by Barbara Schnurbush

 

— Robin Kinsey Mooring



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