"I want to go home!" This common expression can be painful -- and mystifying -- to hear from an aging loved one who's already home, whether in a longtime residence or a new care facility. But don't take it literally.
"I want to go home" tends to be an expression of discomfort: The person doesn't recognize where he or she is and/or is feeling distressed and uncomfortable. At this point in dementia, memories of the distant past are strongest and are often happy ones associated with good feelings. Wanting to go "home" is often an expression of longing for that security.
“This is a rather common longing by folks with dementia,” says Dr. Sai Kumar, founder and CEO of Sustained Hope, a Georgia-based in-home senior care company. “Work with them [rather] than against them by allowing compassion, positive engagement and active encouragement.”
With a patient and consistent approach over time, family caregivers can better understand what’s behind their loved one’s desire to go home and potentially channel that desire into positive actions, such as taking a shower, eating properly or playing games, Kumar says.
What follows are some key tips and strategies to comfort your loved one with dementia when they express a desire to “go home.”
1. It doesn't help to argue.
Offering up rational responses, such as "But you are home!" or "This is your home" are ineffective for someone with dementia because their intellectual capacity to reason is gone.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
Dr. Kumar says his senior care staff uses this approach with clients who have dementia who say they want to go home, asking things like, “when do you want to go? What will you do there? Who will be there to receive you?”Or you can try, "You really miss home. Tell me about home." Then just listen.
3. Try being agreeable.
Respond with,"Okay, let's go." Take a drive around the area and when you get back to where you started, announce, "We're home!"
4. Zero in on their unique experiences.
For someone who has moved a lot over the years, you might ask, "Which home do you mean?" This may be enough to trigger reminisces that are calming.
5. Don't focus on an actual trip to their former home.
It's best not to go out of your way to engineer a trip back to a former home or hometown. Taking the person to visit a past home usually doesn't help because it's not remembered. (Earlier in dementia this may work, but it may also be confusing if the person doesn't quite remember the circumstances of leaving.)
6. Realize that "home" may mean a specific time period.
When the person says they want to go home, they may actually be referring to childhood, or another cherished time in the person’s life, like early married life or early parenthood. Invite the person to talk about favorite activities or places "back home."
7. Try going "home" with photos.
You might say, "We can't go home today, but look at these pictures I found. They can help us plan a trip back there sometime." Then distract with the images.
8. Redirect their attention.
“Where it’s safe and feasible, we also take them around to show other things or people to switch their attention,” says Dr. Kumar. “Sometimes they forget home, but depending on how strong it is, the feeling may come back.”
9. Don't feel insulted.
Adult children who have taken in a parent with dementia often feel that Mom or Dad is complaining that they haven't been made to feel at home. It may be that your loved one is feeling uncomfortable or doesn't have enough privacy, but that's not the same as an indictment of your intent to welcome the person into your home.
Caring.com staff writers contributed to this article.