What does home mean to us?
By AJ Cipperly, National Director of Memory Care and Training
If you’re supporting a person living with dementia you may have heard those words from the person you love. They seem like a pretty normal thing to say…but if the person is already at home, then what are they talking about?
What does home mean to us? For most of us home is a place, a space where we feel safe and comfortable. Home is where we find people that we know and love and who know and love us. Who do we often find at home? Mom, Dad, spouse? Why do we want to find those people? Because they are a source of comfort and security.
If a person living with dementia is saying they want to go home, it could mean they don’t like where they currently are and what’s going on and they want to be where they feel better with someone that will make them feel better. For most of us, that comforting place is “home” and those people we like, we’ll find at “home.”
It’s also possible the person is referring to a childhood home or a home they lived in many years ago. Why would they be thinking of those old places? A couple of reasons. The person could be doing what we call time traveling. In their mind and their reality, they’re back in time when they were younger. For example, if I’m 70 years old, because of my dementia I believe I’m back in my 20’s. And so that’s the “home” I’m going to be looking for. And this place I’m in now is not my “home”- I don’t recognize it. And there’s no one around that I recognize. Because you as my spouse don’t look the same as you did when we were 20 years old. Or you can’t be my daughter, because my daughter is an infant…so “who are you and where is my baby?”
Additionally, the person could be wanting to go “home” meaning a particular time in their life. A time that was better, that they understood and weren’t scared or confused. For many of us, thinking of our past homes and our past life represents good memories and safe and comfortable memories. If we don’t like what’s going on in our lives now, isn’t it normal to recall the “good old days” and want to go back to those times??
Now that we better understand what the person may be referring to, we’ve got to figure out how to help them. If they’re wanting to go back to a childhood home can we do that? Can we take them to that childhood home? Maybe….will that really satisfy what they’re “looking” for…it’s doubtful. If they’re referring to a past time in their life, a better time…can we take them back in time? No. If they’re looking for a person who is gone or deceased, can we give that person back to them? Not physically. But we can give them back the memory of that person and the feelings that person represented.
We can validate the feelings behind the words and meet the emotional needs that are being expressed. If they’re feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, can we help them to feel safe and comforted? Yes!
Here are some tips and guidelines you can use when the person you care about is saying “I want to go home”:
- Repeat back what they said and validate the emotion. “It sounds like…” “It seems like…” “that must be tough” “Sounds like you’re feeling bad about….” When you do this, it is important that your facial expressions and tone of voice match what you’re saying and how your person looks and sounds. For example, if they look sad and upset, you need to look sad and upset.
- Attempt to find the why. Why are they asking about home? Is it a place they’re looking for? If so, which place? Is it a person? If so, why? Do they need to do something at that place? Do they need to find that person to tell them something? Or is it really an emotional need they’re expressing? Knowing the answer to this can help guide the rest of your response.
- Guide the conversation. Gently take the conversation in a different direction while continuing to talk about the place, the person or the thing they need to do. Talk about what they’re good at or ask a question on the topic. “You’re the best at that” “You’ve always been good at doing that”. “Tell me about that time you….” “How did you get so good at that?”
- Offer reassurance. “That must be really hard. I’m here and will help you.” I’m sorry you feel that way, I love you so much and we’ll get through this together.”
Here are some examples:
“Oh my, it sounds like you’re missing home. That must be really hard. (Repeat and validate)
Is there someone there that you’re looking for?” (Find the why)
Your Mom? Was there something you needed to tell her? (Find the why)
No? Your Mom was an awesome cook, wasn’t she? She always made the best chicken pot pie. You’re a great cook, too. Did she teach you everything you know about cooking? What’s your favorite thing to cook?” (Guide the conversation)
“It sounds like you want to go back home. (Repeat and validate)
Now, is that the place in Michigan? (Find the why)
Yeah, that place was so nice. And so cold! I loved it when you would take us fishing on the lake- you were an amazing fisherman. What was the biggest fish you ever caught in that lake?” (Guide the conversation)
“You’re wanting to go home. (Repeat and validate)
Is there something you needed to do? (Find the why)
It must be hard to be away from home. I’m with you right now and will help you get through this. I love you.” (Offer reassurance)
Try using these techniques to help the person you’re supporting. It does take practice and some thinking ahead. If your person has asked to go home before, odds are they’re going to do it again. Go ahead and think of some various responses you could try. If it doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged- instead rest assured that you’ll likely have many more chances to try again so keep coming up with more ideas and write them down. Celebrate successes and see errors as opportunities to learn and improve your skills.
Let me know how these tips helped you. If you’ve tried other techniques and responses, please share so we can learn from each other.
Thank you for reading and thank you for providing loving support to individuals living with dementia!