By Lauren Mahakian Contributing writer. Originally published in Santa Ynez Valley News on 1/5/2023

“I want to go home.”

These five simple words can be very tough to hear from any loved one. We never want the people we care about to feel uneasy, unsafe, or scared. And understandably, “I want to go home” seems like code for “I am uncomfortable and nervous; I want to be out of this situation immediately; I don’t feel safe.”

These are big feelings that are difficult to manage at any age and in any context, but there is an added level of difficulty when your loved one suffers from dementia.

Alzheimer’s and dementia can cause people to experience the world in a way the rest of us may not quite understand. Even places they’ve been to a thousand times before, or people they’ve known for years can seem vaguely or completely unfamiliar through the lens of memory loss. Their realization that they do not remember something or someone can be scary, confusing, and even embarrassing. With those feelings emerging, it’s no wonder someone might want to “go home.”

If encountering these words:

Check for distress. Is this person in pain, hungry, thirsty, or in need of a restroom? Once we’ve ruled out dangers and immediate physical discomforts, we must try to understand any emotional discomfort they may be experiencing. Look at facial expressions, body language, and presentation of emotions. Do they look sad, angry, embarrassed, tired, or bored?

Avoid contradictions. Often, lack of comfort may seem unreasonable and some reactions unwarranted. Help your loved one through validation and not by contradicting them or their reality as “incorrect” or “unreasonable.” Focus on feelings and not symptoms. After all, being told you’re wrong or that what you’re experiencing isn’t real, never makes anyone feel safe or comfortable.

Focus on the five senses (smell, taste, vision, hearing, and touch). Try to turn the stressful environment into a safe, comfortable, and familiar one. Engaging the five senses can often help recall familiarity. Give them some familiar scents or tastes to enjoy, such as a favorite treat, using aromatherapy, candles, or familiar perfumes (jasmine, lavender, and lemon are popular scents). Play some of their favorite music or the sounds of ocean waves crashing. Share old pictures of happy times. Even just holding hands, a familiar blanket, or hugging a stuffed animal can assist calm. So can the texture of papers or various fabrics.

Unfamiliarity can be the root of the problem. Memory loss causes situations to feel unfamiliar. Show your loved one through body language and familiarity that they are in the “right” place.

Write down trends, triggers, and helpful solutions for future events or other caregivers. Proactive approaches may minimize discomfort. Does your loved one say “I want to go home” around the same time every day? Do certain activities make them uneasy? These trends can give massive clues into what they might be thinking and feeling and offer opportunities such as structured activity at that time of day before they begin to verbalize this request. Small adjustments can make a huge difference in the life of a person with dementia.

Flexibility is key. When one method is ineffective, simply try a new one and don’t to be discouraged.

Be sure to answer each question as if it is the first time it is being asked. You may need to repeat the same response several times without ever saying “I already told you,” or “Remember …?”

Navigating discomfort can take a toll on both the loved one and the caregiver. It is imperative to never shame someone for not remembering or feeling uncomfortable, and to not shame yourself when you can’t figure out the problem or their concerns. When one method of helping is ineffective, just try the next without blame or frustration. And when things get too difficult, there are professionals who are trained and able to offer help. Interventions that support positive engagement with your loved one may offer great outcomes.

Feeling safe and comfortable in our environment is a human need — regardless of the presence or absence of dementia.

Compounded by confusion or increased inability to verbally express feelings, those with cognitive decline feel understandably more vulnerable. Living in the “now” and knowing that discomfort is a feeling of the present moment may allow us to better understand the situation and find ways to address it. And understanding that “now” may be a different time or place for different people can offer greater perspective of these conflicts.


Lauren Mahakian is a Certified Dementia Practitioner. She supports families affected by Alzheimers, dementia, and cognitive disorders through care management services and podcast “Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren,” as well as free support groups, and specialty memory care homes located in Torrance and Solvang. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information.


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