Many dementia caregivers have heard their loved one say “I want to go home,” sometimes while they are even in their own home. Sometimes it’s their home of 30 years. That’s frustrating when logic says the problem is already solved.
Or sometimes they’re in a memory care unit or nursing home or somewhere else where going home is no longer an option. That can be heartbreaking in a different way, when you know you have to disappoint them, when they are so upset, when all you want is for them to understand the reason they have to stay where they are.
Repetitive statements and questions can be frustrating, and this one can be especially difficult to deal with, no matter where “home” actually is. A helpful first step is to consider *why* they say this, and whether their request should be taken at face value.
Why Do Dementia Patients Want to Go Home?
Well, why does anyone want to go home? When we think of home, we think of comfort, safety, a place you can relax, be yourself, be cozy in your own familiar surroundings. Who wouldn’t want that, right?
When someone with dementia asks to go home, even if they’re already home, it means they’re asking for that feeling of comfort. They are probably feeling anxious or afraid, confused or unsure. If their own home has become unfamiliar to them or they’re in new surroundings that are actually unfamiliar to them, it’s very normal for them to seek that comfort.
Do your best to not take it personally - remember, it’s the disease talking. They are not intentionally trying to hurt your feelings. Here are three things to consider when responding to their request. So much of relating to someone with dementia is trial and error, so some aspects might work better for your loved one, or might work for a while and then you have to try something else.
How to Respond to “I Want to Go Home”
Address the emotion behind their words. When responding to their request, it’s best to focus your response on providing comfort and reassurance. Listen for what they are feeling behind their request - do you think they are anxious? Afraid? Confused? As dementia progresses, people are less and less able to put their feelings into words, and how they feel tends to come out in behavior, including repetitive questions and statements, instead.
Approach them in a calm and soothing manner and validate and respond to the emotion instead. If you stay calm, it is more likely they will start calming down.
Put their feelings into words by saying something like “You must be feeling worried” or “It’s hard that this place is so unfamiliar” or “I can understand if you’re feeling sad right now.”
And then do whatever you can to offer comfort. If they like hugs or holding hands or sitting close or having their arm or back rubbed, do that. Give them a blanket or other comforting object.
Join them in their reality. Trying to use logic and reasoning to get them to understand their situation or to convince them of a reality that is not their own will likely only make them more upset. Don’t say things like “But you *are* home, dad” or “This is your home now.”
Trying to reason with someone whose brain is deteriorating is unlikely to end in the result you want. If they feel like you’re just trying to thwart them, it’s more likely to make them double-down on their request or make them more agitated and upset.
Again, validate that you hear their desire by simply saying “I know you want to go home,” or “I wish you could go home too.” If they feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be able to calm down.
Go along with it, then redirect them. Once you’ve validated their desire to go home and the feelings behind it, they might need help switching gears. Sometimes you can even go along with their request by saying something like “Yes, we will absolutely do that, as soon as lunch is over,” or “Okay, we can go, let’s get ready.”
This is considered “therapeutic fibbing” if you have no intention of following through, and in this circumstance is okay, if it helps them to feel heard and gets them calming down. They’re getting what they want after all, and who doesn’t like that?
Then, you redirect. Redirection is an amazing tool that can be very effective in managing many different types of agitation. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. The goal is to help move their attention away from the thing that is upsetting them, and at the same time providing the reassurance and comfort that they seek.
After you’ve agreed, to move their attention elsewhere, you could for example ask them what they want to wear to go home or what they’ll do when they get there. Then gradually shift further away from that, asking what they love about their home, if they remember the day they moved there, where they lived when they were younger, getting them wrapped up in sharing memories.
Along the way, look for opportunities to further shift their attention to something else, another topic, something else in the environment, an activity, a snack, something they enjoy.
Hearing our loved ones make demands that we can’t meet is frustrating, and it can be painful to see them upset or not recognizing their surroundings. Hopefully these techniques can help you help them feel safe and secure where they are.