"I Want To Go Home.”

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“When I come to visit, my dad says that he wants to go home,” she said. “I think I should’ve just kept him there…I should’ve take care of him at home.” 

I hear this all of the time at my dementia care community. Family members come in, teary-eyed or angry, and suggest that their loved one wants to go home. 

What I usually explain is this: our residents don’t normally ask us about going home, or not nearly as much as they ask their loved ones. Seeing a loved one is a “trigger” for wanting to go home–it’s a reminder that “home” is no longer where they live.

But, what is home?

I used to take care of a woman at her house. I went over there three times a week and worked “third shift,” aka the overnight shift. I would help Helen get ready for bed, and then I would tuck her in.

Before it was time for bed, though, Helen would ask me about going “home.” 

“My husband is waiting for me,” she’d explain. “I need to get home soon, if not tonight, we need to go tomorrow.”

The thing was, Helen had lived in the same house for nearly 50 years. Because of her dementia, she no longer recognized her house as her home. The “home” she was looking for was sometimes her childhood home. Sometimes it was the home that she had raised her children in, and the home where her husband woke up beside her each day. That home, although it belonged in the same house, was no longer recognizable: her husband had passed, and her children were grown.

I told her family about this, and tried to explain that, truly, Helen would do well in a long-term care community. Her family did not want to move her, although she would’ve benefited from the 24-hour care and ability to socialize with other residents.

“Do you think we can go back to my house tomorrow?” Helen asked.

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll go tomorrow.”

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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