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 steady decline in memory and mental function. 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 a loved one's Alzheimer's diagnosis to a child, consider his or her age and relationship to your loved one to determine how much information 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 feelings of sadness or anger are normal and that he or she didn't cause the disease. Consider explaining 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 rest of the family.

Helping family and friends know how to act

Once you share your loved one's diagnosis, explain what your loved one can still do and how much he or she understands. If necessary, you might offer suggestions about how family and friends can interact with your loved one, such as by briefly reintroducing themselves and avoiding correcting your loved one if he or she forgets something.

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 openly and 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 around your loved one or drift out of your loved one's life, despite your best attempts to help them feel comfortable.

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. 25, 2011 See more In-depth