How to Calm a Person Living with Dementia Who is Wanting to Go Home

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Valerie Feurich

By Valerie FeurichFebruary 17th, 2021

How to Calm a Person Living with Dementia Who is Wanting to Go Home

Strategies for Identifying Causes and Offering Comfort
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If you’re caring for a person living with Alzheimers or another form of dementia, chances are you’ve heard the statement "I want to go home" before. Phrases like "I need to get out of here" or "I’m looking for my mom" are very common in dementia care, as they’re a symptom of a changing brain.

When dementia sets in, the brain undergoes chemical as well as physical changes. One of the first areas of the brain that gets damaged is the hippocampal region, the area of the brain that helps us keep a timeline of our life’s events and helps us orient ourselves in our surroundings. While the order and location of damage within the hippocampus varies by the type and form of brain change, it is one of the first parts of the brain to be affected in all types of dementia.

When enough of the hippocampal area has been damaged, destroyed, or chemically altered, the person will have a really hard time trying to hold on to the timeline of their life. Things we take for granted, such as knowing where you are, how you got there, or remembering the layout of your home, are no longer working properly.

To complicate things even further, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps us to be reasonable and logical, gets damaged by dementia. In addition, a person’s language skills and ability to communicate decrease as well, leaving the person less able to express themselves.

While it can be frustrating for you as a caregiver (or care partner as we call them here at Positive Approach to Care®) to hear the person ask to go home while standing in the house they’ve lived in for many years, remember that blurting out "You are home!" isn’t going to help either one of you.

Instead, you may want to take a deep breath and try the tips below:

1. See If They Might Have an Unmet Need
All human beings have needs to meet, both physical and emotional in nature. Can you think of some of them? Take a look at the list below:

Emotional Expressions of Need:

Anger

Sadness

Loneliness

Fear

Boredom

Physical Unmet Needs:

Hunger or thirst

Energy level

Elimination (using the restroom)

Discomfort

Pain

With a healthy brain, we can either meet those needs ourselves or ask for help. But if a person's brain has been affected by dementia, as explained above, they may not be aware of what is causing the discomfort, let alone be able to describe it.

So, if your person living with dementia says "I want to go home," what they might actually mean is that they're hungry, thirsty, or tired.

Now you may be wondering: Why does a person living with dementia that has an unmet need ask to go home or to see their mom? If you think through your own life and what your home and mom might mean to you, most likely it’s a place of comfort. A place where you can take a drink if you’re thirsty, get some food if you’re hungry, or have your mother help with pain that you might have. So when your person living with dementia is asking to go home, what they may really be expressing, is they’re looking for a place of comfort where their needs are met.

So, next time your person is asking to go home, take a look at the list of unmet needs above and think about what the day was like for them:

- Did they go to the bathroom? How long has it been?
- Did they get something to eat?
- Could they be in pain?
- Could their shirt have gotten wet and be causing them discomfort?
- Are they feeling bored or lonely?

Go through the list above and see if there’s an unmet need that you can help them satisfy.
2. Is the environment affecting the behavior?
While an unmet emotional or physical need may be the trigger for wanting to go home, there may be other causes too. If the environment the person finds themselves in does not feel friendly, familiar, functional, or forgiving, a person living with dementia might be quite uncomfortable.

What is the sensory or social situation? Are there smells or surfaces that might take them back to another time, such as the comfy sofa from their youth?

As you look around to see what might be causing distress, think about Teepa’s tips – separated into Fs and Ss to help you remember.
Teepa’s 4 Fs:

Ask yourself, is the space friendly, familiar, functional, and forgiving?
  • Is it filled with people or objects that your person enjoys?
  • Are there people or objects that tie your person to their whole life, even before dementia was present?
  • Does this space work for them and their current abilities?
  • What happens if the person makes a mistake?
Teepa’s 4 Ss:

Ask yourself, what sensations and surfaces can the person feel? What space do they have? What social opportunities are there?
  • Could they be wearing clothing that is itchy or uncomfortable?
  • Is there a surface that they are touching that isn’t pleasant?
  • If they are an extrovert, do they have an opportunity to be social with others? If they are an introvert, are there too many people around?
  • Look at the space and see if it is cluttered or they feel someone is in their space? Who they have been historically can help you find these clues.
3. Be A Detective, Not a Judge

While it is understandable that one’s spontaneous reaction to "I want to go home" may be a response like "I don’t know what you want – you are home!," consider that if a person can no longer recognize their own surroundings, insisting they are home will not solve the situation.

Again, take a deep breath, and see if you can channel your frustration into curiosity instead. Put on your detective’s hat and see if you can get to the root of their request. So next time your person says "I want to go home," you may want to respond with "Oh, you have to get home. Now, do you need something there, or do you just want to be there?"

Notice Teepa Snow’s communication techniques in this response? Starting with a reflection, the first sentence mirrors back what the person has said. Not only does this help a person living with dementia keep a conversation going, it also signals that you heard them and you care.

Next follows a this-or-that style inquiry. By asking this type of question instead of an open-ended one, you’re offering options without being overwhelming, helping the person living with dementia keep a more fluent conversation.

Through curiosity, you might get a clue to an unmet need that you can fill, or another potential cause for their wish to return home. Plus, by empathizing with the person and showing interest in their worries, you meet them where they are and help protect the relationship that you two share.

Or as Teepa recently said: "You want to look for clues. We have to see clues within what they can give us because they can’t give us more than they can give us."

4. Consider Heading Outside
Conditions permitting, you may want to consider responding with "Okay, let’s head on out" next time they want to leave. By saying that, you’re giving the brain something new to look at, something new to listen to, and something new to experience.

And because they don’t want to be where they are, saying "let’s head on out" is a way to go "Oh, well, let’s see what’s on the other side of that door." Going out for a car ride, a little walk, or being willing to travel a little distance with someone can make a big difference. Take a phone with you in case you need it. It’s better to go with someone than trying to prevent someone who is wanting to get out.
Unfortunately, there are no black and white answers in dementia care, but these tips may be a starting point to help calm your person living with dementia that is looking to go home. Always remember to take a deep breath and a little break if you possibly can. You both need your safe and comfortable space to help protect your relationship on this journey of dementia.
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26 Comments on “How to Calm a Person Living with Dementia Who is Wanting to Go Home

  1. Avatar

    Thank so much! Common question my mom states “this isn’t my home”or she will whisper it to us on FaceTime. We have so much to learn.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks Teepa, we will certainly be better detectives. Mom lives with us. She Skypes for 1 hour every night with my sister. They enjoy sharing the old family pictures. Oten after that she wants to go home. I think she is really saying that Skype has exhausted her.

  3. Avatar

    My husband is presently in a memory unit because I could no longer continue to be his only care giver. He was only in the unit for a few hours before he began to threaten violence if they didn’t let him go back home. Eventually he was transported to a behavioral unit for 9 days. He’s now back in the memory unit and through proper medication is a lot calmer. We are all telling him that he needs to be there so that they can help him improve his memory issues. So far this seems to be working fairly well. Do you have any other helpful suggestions for me. His dx is Alzheimer’s dementia. Thanks.

    1. Alejandro DeJesus

      Hi Bonnie,
      Thanks for recaching out, sounds like things are in a better place than where they started. We would love to help with some tips. I was wondering what you are looking for more information about? Would it be tips for visits with him or something else?

  4. Avatar

    I have read this and I have done almost exactly what you have suggested, sometimes it helps and other times not so much. My wife’s mother loves Elvis so everyday I drive to her house and I play music and sing along with her and I give her foot baths and do her hair that will work for a short time and then the ” I want to go home, I want my husband back” comments resurface even when her husband is sitting right by her she always wants him back. Thank you Teepa for all you do I will continue this journey with my mother-inlaw and i will continue doing my investigations on how to better care for her.

  5. Avatar

    This is a great article! I am going to print it out so the caregivers can read it. We are always struggling with this. Thank you so much!

  6. Avatar

    This situation is very trying for the care mate!!!!! My husband has since passed away but those daily requests some days pushed me to my limit! Sometimes I could redirect with food or sitting outside on the deck for a visit. When he went into a memory community, there were days I’d arrive and he had put his belongings in a laundry basket, box or plastic trash bag and was ready to leave! Fortunately I had listened to you on YouTube and would try your tactics. Thanks for your support.

  7. Avatar

    Thanks, this helps me a lot. My husband is staying part time with my daughters and always wants to go back to the house in the country which is pretty isolated. We are trying to get him into a seniors home but he seams to think I should be there, not him. I will now try harder to understand and deal with this differently.

  8. Avatar

    what is the best approach when a dementia patient awakes every day
    to the statement “I can’t take it anymore” accompanied by wringing of
    the hands and tremors in the hands.

  9. Avatar

    after covid hit mon fell,broke her hip/surgery (no memory of this) and moved to medical care. to her this is unfamiliar, unfriendly (they truly love and care for her) and she wants to go home. have been bringing old familiar things back but there is only so much room. suggestions? (late stage ruby)due to range of motion /pain she is limited in access to activities/socialization

  10. Avatar

    Thear are good tips and i will try some i know i hear a lot when someone says i want to go home i heat other people say you are home which really dont seem to help thank you for some great tips

  11. Avatar

    My husband is 79 and has LBD and in rehab for 10 days now. He keeps saying he wants to go home. I think his emotional and physical needs are not met or not addressed by the staff facility.
    being his care giver I’d like to take him home but only when he’s ready.
    I’m sure I’m gonna need some help with home care or palliative care.
    I really don’t want him to be in memory care facility if need not be of his best interest.

    Any advice or suggestions

  12. Avatar

    Our dear mom of 89 years old has recently passed away. I still beleive that when she asked to go home it was what she really wanted. Also, when she asked to see her mom it’s because she thought herself as a little girl wanting her mommy! I do agree however that when we simply say “You want to go home” than let’s make plans to do so! This gives them a positive connection & for that moment give joy! We would often read her a card that her mother sent her which had comforting & beautiful words to soothe her heart! Do you think that was a good way to respond to her saying”when am I going home?” Louise (daughter)

  13. Avatar

    Hi, my husband who has dementia, thinks he is in a psychiatric hospital when he is actually home with me. He will ask me, how do I get out of this place? I am having trouble responding especially when it is in the evening and almost bedtime. My adult children think he just hates this house and I should move but I feel wherever I go, my husband will continue to want to leave the hospital. Thanks

  14. Avatar

    My mother has shown signs of dementia for years, however this past year she has significantly declined. She’s 83, otherwise seems to be in pretty good health, more than me! She refused to seek out medical care, until a month ago, she started having hallucinations, she was aware of them not being real. She told us something was wrong with her brain. We sent for ambulance, hospital ran tests, pet scan, mri, etc. her brain showed several areas of her brain was affected. They only diagnosed as appearing to have dementia. While her symptoms still include hallucinations, anxiety, inability to sleep except for very small periods of time 24/7, At times audio hallucinations, becomes very agitated, confused. She can no longer be taken care of in the home because she need someone to watch her 24/7, However more importantly because she is noncompliant, refuses medical help or assistance. She is someone that is a fighter and will not allow people in to take care of her. Because of the hallucinations and she’s also had tremors in her hands for years, And appears to be in and out of the confused state, I believe there’s a good possibility it’s LBD. the problem lies in the fact that she appears normal so much of the time, other than a bit of confusion here and there and the hallucinations from time to time. Right now she’s in a memory care facility and begs to go home says she feels she will get better there. She’s also lost a lot of weight, frail, a fall risk. Are we wrong not letting her go home?

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