"I want to go home." Nearly any person caring for an elder with dementia has heard this heartbreaking plea, even if the elder is home. It's fairly well accepted by dementia experts that the "home" most elders want to return to is their childhood home, because in later stages of Alzheimer's that is where, in their minds, "home" is.

The same is true when you hear an aged woman with dementia calling over and over, "Mama! Mama!" This woman is a young child in her brain, and she's calling for her young mother. Not every aging person who enters a nursing home or assisted living has dementia. And not every case of dementia is the same.

My parents each had different forms of dementia, but fortunately, they didn't ask to go home. However, since I was a daily visitor to their care center, I heard the plea from many others. I didn't even know some of the people, but it was a heartbreaker just the same. Most of the people wanting to "go home" had Alzheimer's disease.

A reader on the Agingcare.com forum wrote: "My father with Alzheimer's has been in a nursing home for nearly 3 months, but he thinks it is temporary and that he will be moving out and back in with family. How do I tell him the truth?" As I mentioned above, while he seems to be saying he wants to go back and live with the family, if his Alzheimer's is in one of the later stages, he likely, even if they moved him back, wouldn't feel as though he were home. It's quite probable he'd be agitated by one more move and would still not be "home." But that doesn't make the heartbreaking routine any easier. Caregivers and staff can say repeatedly and gently, "This is your home."

That's okay. But it likely won't help a whole lot. If the person is upset by hearing that, drop it. Arguing will only make the situation worse. This is when caregivers need to take a deep breath and accept that they will continually hear this plea. Expect it. Absorb it. And plan ahead. Then, start the "distraction and redirection" routine.

Handling a Parent Who Doesn’t Want to Live in A Nursing Home

What this means is that, once the plea begins, you perhaps nod your head as a sort of agreement and then gently guide your elder – mentally and/or physically – toward another subject.

If he is using a walker or wheelchair, start moving him toward a window or some object of interest. It's great if the center has an aquarium or birds or other live creatures nearby. I've seen people guide elders toward a chirping parakeet and start talking about the bird. The elder's mind is quickly distracted and the talk can then be redirected toward the bird and what it is doing.

Eventually, the talk may even be turned to appropriate memories. How long will this distraction last? Maybe a minute, maybe an hour. It may not work at all. But it's a start. If the first bit of distraction doesn't work, then try something else. A photo album, perhaps, with some talk about his childhood.

A tip, here, for people who still have their elder at home, but the elder still asks to "go home." Understand what the person wants and then try the same distraction or relearning technique. Some people go as far as taking the person in the car and driving around the block, then re-entering the house. This can work for awhile, but not likely that long. No matter what you do, you will hear it again: "I want to go home." The point here is that no matter what you do or say, likely you will continue to hear the plea to "go home."

Your heart will continue to break. But understanding that the home the person wants likely no longer exists can help the caregiver's "guilt factor" a great deal. Even if you were to pack him up and take him to his last home, he would likely not be satisfied because it's not really the home he means. He doesn't want the home he left three months ago, he wants to go to the home from 60 years ago.

So arm yourself with understanding and acceptance. This is how it's going to be and you can't fix it. Distraction and redirection can sometimes help for awhile, but the plea will continue. "I want to go home." Heartbreaking but common. Sometimes we just have to deal with it.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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