How to respond when a person living with dementia says “I want to go home”
It can be perplexing for families when their relative repeatedly asks to go home. This might occur when a person is living in a care home, or is out in a public space, in which case the question might be interpreted literally. But often it isn’t their actual home that the person has in their mind.
It will be a familiar experience for many carers that their relative asks to ‘go home’ when they are in their own (current) home. When this happens, reminding your loved one that they are at home – ‘this is your home’ – can be confusing and upsetting for the person with dementia. It is likely that they do not recognise their surroundings as ‘home’. Possibly the person is remembering a previous home or childhood home, or it may be that their request to ‘go home’ is an expression of how they are feeling – possibly insecure, fearful, uncomfortable or unsafe.
Here are some helpful steps you can take to put your loved one at ease when they ask to ‘go home:
The first question to ask is: Is the person feeling distressed? Observe their facial expressions and body language. Does the person seem agitated or anxious? Check for any underlying causes, such as needing the toilet, feeling hungry or thirsty, feeling unwell. Physical discomfort will exacerbate anxiety and feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. The person might not know how to use the toilet, for example, or where the bathroom is, they might not recognise or be able to speak about pain, they might not or know how to ask for a drink, even though they are thirsty.
A person might feel bewildered because their environment appears to them to be unfamiliar. Even though they are in their own home where they may have lived for many years, dementia creates changes in the brain which disrupt perception and memory and causes a changed understanding of the world in which they live and their surroundings. Using reassuring approaches and positive body language – warm expressions, gentle tone, calming touch (at the right time) – are helpful for settling the person and letting them know that that they are in a safe place (even if they do not recognise it).
Avoid correcting the person when they say they want to go home, instead ask them how they are feeling, and how they feel about ‘home’; what are they thinking about, remembering, looking for? Engage in the conversation that they lead you to, which might a memory of something that happened when they were younger and allow that conversation to happen. Try to understand what they are trying to say when they ask to ‘go home’.
Create a positive and relaxing environment that will help your loved one feel safe and ‘at home’. Focus on stimulating their senses to encourage ‘in the moment’ meaningful experiences, perhaps using music, pictures, films, nice things to eat, fragrant flowers or infusers; and show your support through physical touch.
Keep a record of occasions when your relative talks about going home, try to identify whether there are any patterns or situations that seem to trigger feelings of distress or anxiety. Does the person say “I want to go home” at around the same time every day? Are there any correlations that you can identify?
If you have found an effective way of distracting the person from feeling agitated, have this up your sleeve. For example, if your loved one responds well to music – and to specific tunes in particular – keep a music device to hand so that you can play his/her favourite tunes when needed.
Experiment with different tactics to find out what works. If you discover an effective approach to alleviating your loved one’s anxiety, add this to your ‘kitbag’ and use it in different circumstances. It might not work every time and it won’t continue to be effective as the person’s condition advances, but it may be be a lifeline for a while.
Please do get in touch to let us know how you manage questions from loved ones about wanting to ‘go home’. Have you been able to work out what he/she is really asking, and have you found techniques that are effective in settling anxiety and agitation? Please do get in touch to share your wisdom and experience: firstname.lastname@example.org