Addressing "I Want to Go Home" from Older Loved Ones
While the National Center for Assisted Living estimates that the one million Americans living in a senior living community will double by the year 2030, placing a parent in assisted living is a tough decision.
Assisted living communities provide seniors with the help they need with daily activities, such as bathing, getting dressed, meals, and medications.
Unfortunately, even in the top assisted living facilities, you’re likely to hear an older adult say, “ I want to go home.”
Hearing this can be very hard for families, but it’s important to get to the bottom of what “home” means, how you can help your loved one, and what to do next.
Hearing your loved ones say that they want to go home can be heartbreaking. Even when you know that an assisted living community is the best solution for your loved one, hearing them ask to go home often evokes feelings of guilt.
This seemingly small sentiment can make you question the quality of the facility and the choices you are making to help your senior. Hearing your parent or spouse ask to go home often unveils feelings we may not realize we had. We may become frustrated, especially with a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s easy to feel helpless, and no matter what you do it does not seem like the best option.
To best help older adults when they say, “I want to go home,” we must be able to see past our initial feelings of frustration, desperation, and guilt. Rather than letting your emotions rule your response, take a step back and assess the various reasons people say they want to go home when they are in a seemingly high-quality assisted living environment.
What Does “Home” Mean?
When we hear our loved ones say they want to go “home,” we tend to think of our version of home. Based on our own concerns and feelings of guilt, we often interpret this to mean home as a place. However, there are many other ways that older people, especially those suffering from dementia, can perceive “home.”
Saying, “I want to go home,” may be another way of saying, “I don’t feel good here.” Teepa Snow breaks down the different meanings of “home” in her podcast Dementia Care Partner Talk Show Ep. 86 “I Want to Go Home!” She explains that when seniors say this, they are telling you something about their current situation that is not familiar, friendly, functional, or forgiving. It may not be a good sensory match, or something is not comfortable. What they are really saying is that they are looking for a place of comfort.
When you understand how dementia affects the brain, the begging for home makes sense. Dementia first affects the hippocampus or the brain’s memory center. As the hippocampus sustains damage, people struggle to remember the timeline of their life. Where they are now versus where they are supposed to be is fuzzy. They may not always understand how they got somewhere or the landmarks around them.
Rather than interpreting “I want to go home” as meaning a physical place, interpret it as a way of asking for some important needs. It could simply mean that the person is hungry, thirsty, or tired. They may need something that they do not know how to get where they are. Asking for “home” is a way of asking for needs to be met.
How to Respond
Hearing the cry for home, especially repeatedly, can be upsetting, annoying, and heartbreaking all at the same time. Understandably, family members and even the trained nursing staff may sometimes respond based on their emotions.
However, a “you are home” or “this is your home now” will not help you or your senior. Rather than responding based on emotion or out of exasperation, try to reveal the cause of the sentiment.
Start with, “Do you need to do something at home or do you just want to be there?” The answer can reveal a lot. If they mention a specific thing they want to do there, you may be able to help them meet that need. Maybe they will tell you they need to make dinner there or they have to use the bathroom. Based on their response, you can help them find a solution.
On the other hand, if the person says they just want to be home, they have an emotional need. Maybe it is a person or a sensory detail. For example, if the older adult responds with “It’s too loud here, so I want to go home,” you can help them find a quieter area.
Another idea is to redirect. Rather than just saying no or telling them they are home, try “let’s head out.” This gives the brain new stimulation it may crave. If possible, take them for a supervised walk outside or a drive around the neighborhood. Always bring a phone and a map just in case you need it. Simply heading out for a little bit and changing up the environment can make a huge difference.
Finding New Friends
Home is also about familiar people who love you. Helping the older adult meet new people at their new home so that they can start to be surrounded by people will go a long way toward making them feel welcome and included.
Photos and Music
Bring in old framed photos, photo albums, or even create a digital photo frame loaded with lots of family photos so they are surrounded by familiar faces. And music can be a powerfully calming force, which draws up familiarity and comfort.
No matter what, monitor your tone. Take a deep breath and remain calm. If you need to, take a break in a safe space. How you speak to the person is just as important as what you say.