What to say

When telling family and friends about a loved one's Alzheimer's diagnosis, consider:

  • Explaining the disease and its effects. Make sure your family and friends understand that Alzheimer's is a disease in which brain cells degenerate and die, causing a decline in memory and mental function over months to years. It isn't something your loved one can control. Explain the symptoms your loved one is likely to experience and how the disease might progress. Learning about Alzheimer's might help family and friends feel more comfortable around your loved one, as well as prepare for the future.
  • Sharing resources. Provide educational material from organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association. Let family and friends know about any local support groups.
  • Asking for help. Tell family and friends how they can help your loved one — and you. Give specific examples, such as taking your loved one to doctor's appointments or picking up groceries.

If you're explaining an Alzheimer's diagnosis to a child, consider his or her age and relationship to your loved one to determine how much to share. You might say, "Grandma has a sickness in her brain that's causing her to forget names." Try to answer any questions simply and honestly and listen to the child's concerns. Explain that sadness or anger is normal and that he or she didn't cause the disease. Explain what changes a child might expect to see in his or her loved one — such as not being recognized — and how this might affect the family.

Helping family and friends know how to act

Once you share the diagnosis, explain what your loved one can still do and how much he or she understands. You might offer suggestions for interacting, such as by having people briefly reintroduce themselves and avoiding correcting your loved one if he or she forgets something. Encourage people to engage in activities that are familiar to your loved one.

A young child might look to your example to know how to act around a person who has Alzheimer's. Show that it's OK to talk to your loved one and enjoy normal activities with him or her, such as listening to music or reading stories. Older children might have a harder time accepting the changes Alzheimer's can cause and might feel uncomfortable spending time with a loved one who has Alzheimer's. Avoid forcing the issue. Instead, talk honestly about the child's concerns and feelings.

Keep in mind that some family and friends might have trouble handling the diagnosis. They might feel uncomfortable or drift out of your loved one's life, despite your best attempts to help.

Telling family and friends about a loved one's Alzheimer's diagnosis can be difficult. Being honest and providing information about Alzheimer's disease can go a long way toward helping others understand the situation.

Aug. 30, 2014 See more In-depth