Every parent wants their protect their child from the negative aspects of life, such as sickness, violence, and the overall ‘bad’ things people do to one another. Unfortunately, over-sheltering a child from the realities of life can result in problems of its own. If, for example, you have an aging or dying relative, and have kept the children in your life in an idealistic bubble, trying to explain the process of aging or the sad reality of death can be extremely difficult when it inevitably arises.
Luckily, there are ways of helping children understand aging, including teaching them about the value of the elderly in society and educating them about health and nutrition for all ages. At first, talking about such topics might be awkward for a parent to introduce, but more often than not a child will provide the cues for such a conversation. This is particularly true if you have an aging or dying relative in your own family unit.
There is no one-size-fits-all method of parenting, but there are a number of important factors to consider in order to help children understand aging:
Children will often ask ‘why’ about everything, so all you have to do is answer their questions about aging as honestly as you can. For example, if they ask ‘why does grandma have to go to the hospital’ just be honest and say ‘because they’re not well and the doctor is going to try to fix them.’ There’s no need to launch into a verbose speech about the fragility of the human body, and the scientific effects of aging on bone density, mind you. Keep the conversation simple, but honest.
Similarly, if a curious child wonders why their grandparent has to move house (when the relative in question is actually going to a nursing home) don’t just avoid the question. This is the perfect opportunity for you to tell them that their aging relative is having difficulty making their bed/cooking their meals, and as a result they are going somewhere that provides them with helpers. The complexity of the language requires common sense: if your child is a precocious five-year-old, keep it simple.
Note: in all instances, if you are a family member but not the actual parent of the child in question, make sure you don’t dive right into a lengthy conversation about any topic before getting the okay of the parents (particularly when the subject matter is complex).
A Child’s Concept of Death
Death is a taboo subject in Western society, and any talk of it is brushed under the carpet as being too depressing or not something that needs to be addressed immediately. As parents or loved ones of children, it’s tempting to avoid the uncomfortable topic altogether. However, parents and relatives involved in a children’s upbringing are responsible for that child’s perception of the world. Is it not better to influence their perception than to allow them to receive fragmented messages outside the family environment?
Before proceeding thus, it is recommended to familiarize yourself with the phases of a child’s developing concept of death
Children are naturally curious, and often bombard adults with ceaseless questions about the hows and whys of life. The concept of death according to a child is a fascinating subject that has been widely researched. For example, the University of Rochester Health Encyclopedia contains an entry about a child’s concept of death which argues that death is perceived differently according to the developmental stage of the child. Infants and toddlers don’t have much of a grasp of the meaning of death, and it is only when a child reaches preschool age that they begin to form a blurry impression of it.
The general formula for a gauging a child’s understanding of death according to their development stage is as follows:
Infants don’t understand death. They do possess the ability to react to changes in their routine or environment, however. If you’re going through a difficult time with an aging relative and have an infant child, they won’t know what’s going on, but their behavior may change in alignment with yours. If they sense that either parent is stressed, for example, they may cry more often. If their eating routine is disrupted because of caring for an aging relative, they could become upset.
At this age, children still don’t understand death, but their perceptions are more refined than an infant’s. At two years old, a child’s capacity for understanding emotions develops rapidly. Toddlers are keenly aware when their parents or loved ones are sad. You will find that a toddler hugs a crying relative, for example, or shows other signs of affection to highlight their awareness of the emotion. However, in philosophical terms, they don’t appreciate the sad reality of the aging process, death, or any of life’s big questions or negative events.
A review of empirical literature about a child’s concept of death found that most healthy children began to fully understand the concept of death between the age of 5 and 7. Researchers on the subject provide three criteria for the comprehensive understanding of death: irreversibility, non functionality, and universality.
Understanding the irreversibility of death means that you are aware that a deceased person is not going to regain their cognition or faculties. Children at earlier ages, when told that a relative is going to heaven, might ask when they’re coming back. This means that they don’t yet fully appreciate the irreversibility of death.
The non functionality of death pertains to the understanding that all bodily and mental functions cease after death. A child who has not yet comprehended the non functionality of death may perceive a dead relative to be sleeping, for example.
The universality of death simply pertains to the understanding that all things (living things) die.
Overall, once a child reaches the age of five or more, the parent will be able to measure the emotional resilience of their child and approach topics of aging or death as deemed appropriate. No one knows a child better than the people raising them.
It’s true that caring for an aging or dying relative can create a lot of stress for everyone involved. Whether the official caregivers are professionals or loved ones, no one is immune to the emotional impact of the cycle of life. However, the medical care we can avail of today allows us for a much greater peace of mind. Scientific advancements and improved professional caregiving standards provide us with a multitude of options that inevitably impact the quality of life an aging relative has. A strong family unit, including open communication with younger family members, will ensure that the twilight years of any relative will be filled with happy memories.