If your loved one has had dementia for at least a few years, I’m gonna guess that you’ve probably heard the expression “I want to go home.”
It can be quite frustrating and quite unsettling at the same time, to the caregiver, especially if it’s the first time that you’ve heard it. You wonder what do they mean; they are home. Maybe this has been the home that they’ve known for the last 20 or 30 years, but yet they still say, “I want to go home.” And again, if it’s the first time you’ve heard it, you may actually challenge them and say you are home. And then the response is agitation, more confusion, maybe some pacing, but it’s never just a simple “Okay.”
So what’s going on when they say, “I want to go home.”?
Well, what they’re referring to is home from the past. It means that they don’t recognize their current surroundings, as their present home. Again, even if it’s been their home for the last several decades. So what do you do with this information? Well, the first thing I would tell you is don’t challenge it. What we want is we want to reassure. We want to go ahead and understand the discomfort that they must be experiencing because, for just a minute, imagine if someone told you that you were home, but you didn’t recognize the surroundings. But they kept saying, No, this is home. Wouldn’t it agitate you cause you to become anxious and scared?
Well, that’s what happens when your loved one wants to go home, and they’re being told that this is their home. When they say, “I want to go home,” This can also be used as a cue, a cue or a clue to where they are in the stage of their dementia. Because we know, particularly with Alzheimer’s, short term memory is the first to go. So, if they’re not even remembering their current home, which would be long term memory, but if they’re not recognizing it, then that would tell me that they are at least in the moderate probably latter part of the moderate stage, and possibly even the beginning of the late stage of their dementia.
So how do you know? Well, I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed is that when people start talking about loved ones, in particular, their parents, who probably are deceased at this point. But they’re talking about them in present tense. Maybe they’re saying, “I want to go see mom” or, “Has dad called recently?” or, “What time does dad get home from work? But dad’s been passed for several years. That is a window into where they’re at, where their present-day is, back in their childhood maybe, or maybe back in the years of their early adulthood.
So how do you manage this when they tell you they want to go home?
What I would recommend is to try distraction.
You could say something like, “okay, we’ll go home, but let’s just stay here one more night,” sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. You could also go ahead and try to get some information about the home. And by having them talk about the home, that alone could distract them, and perhaps calm them. You could ask them, what is it about your home that you love so much? Maybe it’s the yard, maybe by some of the things that they tell you, you’ll have an idea of which home they’re referring to. Was it their childhood home? Maybe it was their first home, once they moved out of their house.
Go ahead and try to turn it around, so instead of it being something that is anxiety-provoking that it’s actually an opportunity for conversation, be amazed at how it works, it’s very easy to distract when you’re tapping into a long term memory. We try so hard to understand what they’re going through, but the truth is, despite our very best efforts, we really don’t know. So we have to try to imagine what it must be like for them.
Again, it’s very, very important, do not correct them, don’t tell them that this is home because to them, it’s not, and what it can also do is cause them to not trust you. And if you are their person, their primary caregiver, the last thing you want to do is to betray that trust.
So again, try to get them to talk, before you know it, you might be deep in a conversation, and they’re not remembering that they are asking to go home. Again this is very common; it’s quite unsettling, especially the first time you hear it. But rest assured. This is more common than you can imagine, and with a little bit of creativity on your part, and certainly a lot of understanding, this can be an opportunity for you to learn more about your loved one, perhaps some things that you didn’t know.
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