“I want to go home.”

Nearly every dementia caregiver, irrespective of ‘type’ of dementia,  has heard this heartbreaking plea. They may already be at home or they may be struggling to accept their new surroundings after a move to a  residential / nursing home, but this simple statement is still jarring. Home means a host of  different things for different people, but dementia tends to take this concept to a new and confusing extreme.

How Dementia Skews Older Folk’s Perception of Time and Place

It’s fairly well accepted by dementia experts that the “home” most  older folk wish to return to is their childhood home. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, it is thought that an older person may tap into remaining memories from long ago and revert to a younger period in their minds. The passage of time becomes confusing and overwhelming, so they seem to crave the familiarity of their family home or call out for long-deceased family members and friends as a source of comfort.

Remember that not every case of dementia is the same.

Handling an Older Person’s Pleas to Go Home

Caregivers/ care staff  often  ask me  how to handle requests to go home. Many people initially take this desire at face value, especially from loved ones who are living in long-term care settings. However,  it’s important to understand that giving in to these appeals is not guaranteed to be successful.

Many families struggle with a decision to move their loved ones OUT of  a residential setting and in with them, but, (be warned!) this rarely pans out. Although the move makes sense logically, older folk  in the middle and late phases of dementia do not handle change well. It’s probable that this person would become agitated and disoriented by yet another move and would still not consider it to be “home.” Unfortunately, this realisation doesn’t make navigating such a heartbreaking routine any easier.

Caregivers and staff can gently remind the person, “This is your home,” each time their anxiety increases. That’s okay, but it may not help much. If the person gets upset by hearing this, then drop it. Correcting or arguing with them will only make the situation worse. This is when you need to take a deep breath and accept that you will continually hear this plea. Expect it. Absorb it. Plan ahead. Then, begin using the distraction and redirection routine I demonstrate during my courses.

Validation and redirection are a dementia caregiver’s secret weapons. What this means is that, once the plea begins, you acknowledge their request and validate their feelings. Then you gently guide their attention to a different object, activity or topic of interest. If there is something in their immediate environment that is prompting this desire to go home, try moving to a different room or area to eliminate this stimulus.

How long will this distraction last? Maybe a minute or two, maybe an hour. It may not work at all, but it’s a start. If the first attempt doesn’t work, then try something else. Just remember to be respectful and understanding. Bring out a photo album, put on their favourite old movie, take them to an activity or class at the home or play some soothing music. Ask them about their childhood, their career, time at school or starting a family of their own. Mastering redirection requires a lot of trial and error, so be patient and take note of what works and what doesn’t.