Here are some ways family members and primary carers can approach the difficult question, 'What do I say to someone with dementia in residential care who wants to go home?'
It's not uncommon for a person with dementia in residential care to say they want to go home. This may be caused by time-shifting and can be distressing for everyone.
Below are a few considerations on what to say to someone in this situation who wants to go home.
5 things to remember when someone with dementia is asking to go home
1. Avoid arguing about whether they are already ‘home'
For a person with dementia, the term 'home' may describe something more than the place they currently live. Often when a person with dementia asks to go home it refers to the sense of ’home’ rather than home itself.
‘Home’ may represent memories of a time or place that was comfortable and secure and where they felt relaxed and happier. It could also be an indefinable place that may not physically exist.
It’s usually best not to try to reason or disagree with the person about where their home is.
If they don't recognise their environment as 'home' at that moment, then for that moment, it isn't home.
Try to understand and acknowledge the feelings behind the wish to go home. Find out where 'home' is for them - it might not be the last place they lived. It could be where they lived before moving recently or it could be somewhere from their distant past.
Often people with dementia describe 'home' as a pleasant, peaceful or idyllic place where they were happy. They could be encouraged to talk about why they were happy there. This can give an idea as to what they might need to feel better.
2. Reassure them of their safety
The desire to go home is probably the same desire anyone would have if we found ourselves in an unfamiliar place.
Reassure the person verbally, and possibly with arm touches or handholding if this feels appropriate. Let the person know that they are safe.
It may help to provide reassurance that the person is still cared about. They may be living somewhere different from where they lived before, and need to know they’re cared for.
3. Try diverting the conversation
Keep a photograph album handy. This could be a physical book or photos on a tablet or smartphone. Sometimes looking at pictures from the past and being given the chance to reminisce will ease the person’s feelings of anxiety.
It might be best to avoid asking questions about the pictures or the past, instead trying to make comments: 'That looks like Uncle Fred. Granny told me about the time he....'
Alternatively, you could try shifting the person's focus from home to something else - such as food, music, or other activities, such as a walk.
4. Establish whether or not they are feeling unhappy or lonely
A person with dementia may want to 'go home' because of feelings of anxiety, insecurity, depression or fear.
Is the person with dementia happy or unhappy now? If they are unhappy, it may be possible to discover why. If they cannot tell you why, perhaps a member of the staff or another resident knows why.
Like anyone, someone with dementia may act out of character to the people closest to them as a result of a bad mood or bad day.
Does the person with dementia keep talking about going home when people are not visiting them in the care home? Does he or she seem to have settled otherwise? Ask the staff in the home as they may know.
5. Keep a log of when they are asking to go home
Certain times of the day might be worse than others. What seems to be the common denominator about these times? Is it near meal times (and would a snack perhaps help)? Is it during times when the environment is noisier than usual? Is it later in the day and possibly due to ‘sundowning’?
If you see a pattern, you can take steps to lessen or avoid some of the triggers.
This article was first published in 2018 and most recently updated in January 2023.
How can dementia change a person's perception?
People with dementia experience changes in how they perceive things. This includes misperceptions and misidentifications, hallucinations, delusions and time-shifting