People with dementia or Alzheimer’s often say or do things that can be frustrating, worrying, and upsetting for caregivers to deal with.
Often, people with dementia will tell their caregivers “I want to go home,” which can be hard to hear over and over, especially if they are already in their own homes.
But when someone has dementia, trying to explain that they’re already home is not always an option. It’s important to be careful how you approach this scenario and how you phrase things, as approaching it too aggressively or with too little patience can lead to emotional outbursts that can cause both you and your loved one a great deal of stress.
When these situations arise, there are a few things you can say that will help calm and soothe them, helping them to let go of the idea. Let’s talk about them.
Dementia is an umbrella term for memory loss and impairment in other cognitive abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. It’s caused by damage to brain cells, which can interfere with the ability of those cells to communicate with each other. This affects thinking and behavior.
When a person with dementia asks to go home, the chances are slim that they actually want to go to a specific, physical location. Home represents comfort, memories, and people that they might miss or feel unable to connect with. In short, the request to go home is often more of a request for comfort rather than a change of actual location.
Responding with compassion and understanding is one of the best things you can do, even though hearing this request can be frustrating at times.
Everyone is different, and you may need to get a bit creative with your responses in order to personally suit your loved one. With that said, here are three things you can try to start on the right track.
Think about a time when you felt scared or concerned in an unfamiliar place. You probably wanted to go home, right? Elderly individuals may use “I want to go home” as a way of expressing feelings of tenseness or anxiety. It may just be a way of asking for some extra comfort.
Respond in a calm, positive, and supportive manner by validating their feelings. This helps them feel understood and supported, which can alleviate some of their anxieties and possibly eliminate their desire to go home.
Tell them that you love and care for them, and even if they live somewhere new, you are still there to care for them whenever they need.
Your loved one is likely to mimic some of your feelings. If you are able to remain calm, the chances are high that they’ll be calm as well. If they’re comfortable with it, you can offer physical contact at this time, like a hand on the shoulder or a hug.
Additionally, you may want to consider getting them a stuffed animal or soothing blanket that can help comfort them in situations like these. Plus, it can help them feel safe if you’re ever not around.
Sometimes, no amount of reassurance can be enough to get someone with dementia to feel comfortable. Redirection and distraction are strategies that can be useful when working with individuals with dementia to try to reframe their thoughts and relieve anxiety.
First, validate their reasoning. You can say something like “Okay, we’ll leave as soon as I take out the trash” or “we’ll go in just a minute.” This calms the situation because it allows your loved one to feel warranted in their feelings, understanding that they will receive their desires soon.
Next, you can redirect them to a different conversation or activity. For example, you can take them by the arm and start leading them to the front door, but maybe stop at a wall of pictures on the way. While you’re there, you can try to bring up memories or occurrences from the past to get their mind off of wanting to go home.
This will also encourage them to share positive memories and feelings, distracting them from the original goal. Plus, you might learn something brand new about your past or theirs in the process!
Once you’ve redirected their thinking, you can try to shift the focus towards another facet of their daily routine. After you look at pictures, maybe you can have them sit down on the couch next to it so you can bring them their lunch on a TV tray. Or, continue walking down the hall towards the bathroom so they can brush their teeth.
If successful, your loved one may have completely shifted their focus to other activities and feel no need to go home anymore.
It might feel wrong to lie to your loved one, but there are times when therapeutic fibbing can be in the best interest of both you and people with dementia. It’s always best to tell the truth when you can, but if that truth will cause psychological or physical distress, then it’s okay to use a bit of healthy misdirection.
A person with dementia who wants to go home may be feeling unhappy about something currently happening in their life. And you might be able to uncover why.
Are they having a particularly bad day? Does your loved one continually bring up the need to go home at certain times of day, or on certain days of the week? If you can find an answer to these questions, you may be able to anticipate this request and come prepared to dilute the situation.
If you notice that your loved one often says they want to go home close to meal times, for example, it may be a way to communicate that they are hungry and want food. By noticing these patterns, you may be able to provide them with what they need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when an individual with dementia wants to go home is that home may represent a concept rather than a physical location. So even if they are home, it’s usually not a good idea to argue with them.
Being insistent that your loved one is already home might lead to increased agitation and anxiety. The information you explain may not be processed the way you want it to, and they will feel like you aren’t listening to them. Additionally, they may feel like you are preventing them from doing something that they wish to do.
Finally, you don’t want to raise your voice, no matter how hard it can be to hear your loved one insist on going home. Your tone of voice and choice of words can have a direct effect on their feelings, and a harsh tone can lead to increased stress or upsetedness.
Dementia can affect the brain in many ways, including loss of memory and general cognitive impairment. This can lead to changes in behavior or difficulty communicating in a traditional sense. For that reason, it’s common to hear people with dementia say they want to go home in times when they feel distressed and need extra comfort.
This can be frustrating to hear, especially if they are already home, but you can try to diffuse the situation using these three strategies:
Regardless, the most important thing to remember is to offer compassion, positivity, and support. Sometimes, your company is more than enough.
If you need a little bit of extra support, Waltham Clinic can help. From remote telemedicine to in-person geriatric psychiatry, we’re here to help you coordinate care for your loved ones. Click here to learn more.