Jen was in tears when she called me after visiting her 86-year old mother, Barbara, in the memory care unit. I had helped Jen locate the facility a few weeks earlier when it became evident that her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, needed 24/7 care.
“My visit with Mom was so awful today,” Jen explained. “All she did was cry and tell me that she wants to go home. I feel so bad. Did I make the wrong decision? Should I have let her stay at home?”
It hadn’t been easy for Jen to watch her mother’s dementia progress. And while we both knew that it wasn’t safe for Barbara to live at home anymore, I could totally understand Jen’s mixed emotions and her feelings of guilt. As a care manager, I work with many family members who agonize over the decision to place an aging loved one in a memory care unit or nursing facility. Even when it’s evident that it’s in their loved one’s best interest, they sometimes feel it’s a kind of betrayal. I had felt this way myself when I arranged for my own mother to live in a nursing facility. And she too had often told me she wanted to go home.
But what does it mean when your loved one says this? First, wanting to go home may result from feelings of anxiety or insecurity. When Jen’s mother says she wants to go home, it’s quite possible she’s feeling a need for something familiar. The memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can be confusing and frightening. Home is often the place we think of as comfortable, a place we want to be when we’re scared. The person could even be thinking of their childhood home. Or they could just be feeling tired or stressed by a change in routine.
That’s why “home” can mean different things, and there are different ways to respond. I have found that sometimes it’s a combination of validating the person’s feelings – letting them know I understand they’re missing home – and reassuring them that they’re safe. With my mother, her pleas to go home were most intense when she first moved into the facility as she adjusted to a new routine. But I learned from the nursing staff that Mom did just fine when I wasn’t around. It reminded me of when your child first goes to school for the first time and is upset, but as soon as you leave, everything is okay.
Different approaches may work at different times. I suggested to Jen that she could try distraction and suggest an activity her mother enjoys to focus her attention on something else. The important thing is to stay calm. There’s no point in arguing or getting annoyed. Remember that your loved one’s distress is often the result of their illness.
Senior Transitions helps families with aging parents or grandparents to find the best life possible care options and help the aging family members live with independence. There are many care options and each individual is unique. We have been providing services in the Tallahassee area for over 30 years.
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