Dear Family Advisor

My cousin lies to her kids about Mamaw's Alzheimer's

Last updated:

June 15, 2010

My cousin is lying to her kids about our grandmother's Alzheimer's disease. They're still pretty little -- 3, 5, and 9. But she tells them Mamaw is "in a bad mood today" or "forgot her medicine" or "isn't feeling well." She never uses the word "Alzheimer's" or talks about how our grandma's memory is bad and will get worse. I know kids don't need to know everything, but in this case it rankles -- our grandmother is already pretty far along in the disease. I worry the kids are scared of her unnecessarily because they don't understand.

Plus, mine know and have told their cousins -- which makes my sister mad. For what it's worth, she doesn't use the proper words for body parts or urinating and doesn't let her kids watch even mildly violent stuff like Star Wars. So settle an argument: Is it best to tell them or not?

Since your children have already talked about your grandmother's memory loss to their cousins, then that cat is already out of the bag. So don't bother trying to stuff it back in. Treat her children as if they already know -- because they do. At the same time, be sensitive to their young ages and to your cousin's feelings.

Talk to your own children about being respectful of how other families choose to communicate. Understand that they do need to talk about their great-grandmother, to work through it in their hearts and heads, but remind them that their cousins also have things to work out, and that it's probably best if they talk to someone older, with more experience.

Your cousin sounds as if she's still uncomfortable with your grandmother's condition. While it may seem to us that someone else's journey is painfully slow, it's important to realize that it's their process, not ours. All of us have issues to work through -- and we're each on our own timetable.

Many family members and friends come in conflict over how children are raised. We become concerned when we see children being taught or treated in a way that we ourselves would not choose. The time to intervene comes when we feel a child is being abused -- physically, verbally, or emotionally. It doesn't sound as if your cousin is abusing her children; she's simply not raising them the way you would.

I hope you'll treat her with patience and compassion. Talk honestly about your grandmother's condition. We usually fear the unfamiliar, and it's likely that your cousin knows very little about Alzheimer's. Most people don't take the time to read up on a disease that affects someone else. They're busy with their own lives -- and perhaps afraid of what they might learn.

The more you can naturally integrate snippets of your grandmother's life and care into the day-to-day exchanges, the sooner your cousin will start to feel comfortable with not only this disease but also with the aging process.

Be her example. Love your grandmother just as she is and talk about the times she says something cute and the times she frustrates you. Treat it in a matter-of-fact manner -- she's your grandma and she has a disease. It affects her ability to remember current events and people, and what she does remember can seem random. Alzheimer's can alter her personality and cause her to make irrational decisions.

Your grandma needs all of you -- to keep an eye on her, to be her advocate in the medical community, to protect her finances, and even to make sure she's not physically harmed. It would be wonderful if your cousin could help you -- be your support and help shoulder aspects of your grandmother's care. Is she going to be everything you want and need her to be? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that she won't surprise you. People are capable of change, especially when we expect and anticipate the best in them.

We tend to compare ourselves to others in hopes that we can validate that we're doing an okay job, whether that's in parenting, in our marriage, our career, or our health -- but we don't realize that our critical words and thoughts tear at the fabric of our beliefs and relationships and damage us all. Most of us have all we can handle managing our own lives and find a greater sense of peace when we let go of what we think others should do or not do.

My adoptive daddy was a wise man, and he used to tell me, "Small people talk about people. Average people talk about things. Great people talk about ideas."