Understanding When A Dementia Patient Wants To Go Home

Dementia patient driver is lost
Dementia patients frequently say they want to go home, but often this means they need physical comfort in the form of food or drink or help dealing with feelings of insecurity, anxiety, or depression. This can lead to them being confused, distressed, or prone to wander off.

Anyone with Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia is prone to wandering off. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 dementia patients will wander at least once at some point. One reason for this behavior is having the desire “to go home,” which is something they could have even when they’re already at their residence.

What Does It Mean When A Person With Dementia Wants To Go Home?

Dementia is an umbrella term for brain diseases affecting memory, language, reasoning, problem-solving, communication, and other cognitive skills. In the United States, about 6.5 million live with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common among the different types of dementia.

Terms about dementia

Dementia patients have a damaged hippocampus. It’s the part of the brain that creates new memories, especially those concerned with location and time. This makes them at risk of wandering off, getting lost, sundowning (or late-day confusion), and feeling disoriented.

If you’re one of those caregivers working in a nursing home or an assisted living or care facility — hearing the words “I want to go home” from patients isn’t something you should brush off, or they’d end up wandering off, among other consequences.

If you’re one of their family members living with them, it’s also essential to understand its real meaning. You don’t have to be overly concerned thinking that your loved one isn’t happy being at home.

Disoriented senior wants to go home

“I-wish-to-go-home” statements could mean several things, including:

1. Unmet Needs

Dementia patients need prompt personal care. When they say they want “to go home,” it could be that they’re feeling tired, hungry, or thirsty. Ask how they feel and determine which of their needs have to be fulfilled. Sometimes, giving them food or drink can already resolve the issue.

2. Pain And Discomfort

In other instances, their plea to go home is a way for them to convey that they feel physical pain. It could also be that they’re feeling too hot or cold, disturbed by sounds (including music), or uncomfortable with being in an unfamiliar environment.

3. Loneliness Or Depression

Dementia patients often have feelings of insecurity and isolation. They can get anxious because they’re losing their memories, can’t do things like they used to, or simply feel lonely. They utter words like “I wish to return home” as a cry for help and reassurance.

4. Memory lapses

As we age, it’s vital to pay attention to proper memory care (e.g., doing brain exercises). Once people suffer from short-term memory issues, they may find it difficult to recall where their home is. They may also wish to go back to their childhood home.

5. Boredom

Though people with dementia are experiencing memory loss, it doesn’t mean they don’t long to have meaningful days. When they can’t accomplish that, their boredom can prompt them to find their “home.”

Helping senior remember

What Is “Home” To An Alzheimer’s Or Dementia Patient?

One’s home is more than just a residential address. It could be someone or some environment where one feels safe and comfortable. For patients with dementia, a home is a place where there’s an air of familiarity.

This is why if you have a loved one with a brain disorder and you’re considering moving them into a care home or enrolling them at a daycare center, creating a “home” out of their immediate surroundings is critical.

To help older people with dementia, you can give them the pillows and blankets they’ve always been using, paint the walls the same color as their old house, or even follow their previous home’s furniture layout. More importantly, with the help of a dementia caregiver, keep their new place safe and easy to navigate.

How Should You Deal With A Dementia Patient Who Wants To Go Home?

Full-time carers and family members should learn how to deal appropriately with someone with Alzheimer’s.

If they say they want to go home, one of the things you can do is to give reassurance. Do this calmly, as it helps them feel understood. Pair your verbal communication with body language as well. You can give them a hug, gently stroke their arm, or sit with them.

Acquiring the “agree, redirect, and distract” skill is also vital. Validate their yearning, but learn to pivot the conversation so you can take their mind away from wishing to return home. Then, redirect them to other meaningful activities like walking or reviewing a photograph album.

Reasoning out with them or trying to change what they want can make them feel agitated. In some cases, it can even lead to aggression.

Wandering dementia patient

How Can You Prevent A Dementia Patient from Wandering Off?

Wandering is “walking away from a particular location and being unable to retrace [one’s] steps.” And it can happen at any stage of dementia. While entirely preventing this from happening is difficult, here are some dementia care measures you can take to minimize the likelihood of it happening:

1. Invest In Wandering Alarms

Caregivers (including family caregivers) should install an anti-wandering system. From motion sensors and entry and exit surveillance cameras to pressure-sensitive mats, many devices are available to notify you if a patient or a loved one tries to escape.

2. Install Specialized Door Locks

Apart from monitoring gadgets, you must safeguard your place by installing special locks and latches on doors, windows, and gates. Make sure to keep keys out of their reach as well.

3. Properly Label Interior Doors

Noticeable visual cues to reorient individuals displaying dementia behavior like wandering may also come in handy. These can come in the form of photo labels that identify key areas like the kitchen and bathroom.

4. Create A Safe Space Where They Can “Wander”

Because wandering off is challenging to prevent, one workaround you can do is to help people with cognitive impairment “wander” safely within your premises. Set aside time to explore and walk around your yard or an open space in a senior living facility.

5. Identify What Triggers Their Wandering

As discussed, dementia-affected people wanting to go home could imply many things. To address that, observe their behavior and determine what triggers their yearning to wander off. Based on that, ensure that their needs are met. 

You must also create a routine to provide them with a sense of familiarity. This means having specific mealtime schedules or regular activities, such as exercising with a support group).

6. Get Neighbors And Local Authorities Informed

Warn concerned people about the possibility of a patient or a family member getting lost. Your neighbors and local patrol and police officers will be able to help you better if they know about this situation.

7. Let Patients Wear A Tracking Device

Signs of dementia include confusion and disorientation. As a brain disease progresses, these symptoms also become aggravated. If aging loved ones like your parents and father or mother-in-law get lost, a tracking device can help you track their whereabouts. The trackers are available as smartwatches, shoe soles, pendants, keychains, and more.

Also, consider letting them wear medical identification so you can be easily contacted. On your part, make sure that you know about Alzheimer’s Association helpline.

Responding To When Dementia Patient Wants To Go Home

Seeing dementia patients struggling with memory loss and pleading to go home can be heartbreaking, especially if it’s your first time hearing it. Whether they’re in a senior care facility, memory care facility, or at home, they could have that desire for several reasons — and explicitly say they want to go home repeatedly.

Patience is a virtue when speaking with someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. As discussed above, be gentle with your words and actions and be smart when practicing your redirecting skills.

Ultimately, you must identify what’s causing that behavior and develop a care plan and wandering-prevention measures accordingly.

Randell S.

Randell Suba is a former Physiotherapist who returned to his first love, writing. He has over a decade of online writing and research experience. Randall has experience managing the care of elderly parents who lived with his family and other relatives with dementia, so he writes in the area of senior living and care with considerable experience.

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