Why Do People Living with Alzheimer's Want to Go Home?
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Podcast Transcript - Why Do People Living with Alzheimer's Want to Go Home?
Do Alzheimer's patients want to go home, or are they longing for a time and a place where they were safe and secure and knew everyone's name and face?
My mother repeatedly said she wanted to move back home to a place where she had not lived for over 60 years: South Philadelphia. When she did this, the sound of her voice, the look on her face, the look of confusion and longing often made me feel deeply sad.
Saying I want to go home to a place in the past is a common occurrence among the deeply forgetful: people living with Alzheimer's or related dementia.
When my mother first started saying, "I want to move back to South Philly," I really couldn't understand why. But she said this most nights, around 9 pm, for several years. Once I made my way into Alzheimer's world, I started asking myself, "Why? Why did Dotty want to go back to a place where she had not lived since the 1940s? Why?"
I finally concluded, over time, that my mother was really looking for the comfort and security she experienced while living with her parents, and living in a safe, secure place, surrounded by people, places, and faces she knew: family, relatives, close friends.
I understood at the time that Dotty's short-term memory was gone. I think this is one of the keys to understanding dementia. The ability to retain new memories was gone. Dotty couldn't remember right now. However, Dotty's long-term memory was still fully intact. I asked, "Mom, where did you go to first grade?" "St. Monica's," she responded. By the way, that was in 1922. My mom remembered 1922 in South Philadelphia.
One day, my mom told me about how she used to ride on the truck with her father and how his customers would give her candy. And then, she told me something I had never heard before. The truck her father was driving was pulled by a horse. The engine was a horse! That story made me happy. The experience she was describing happened in the 1920s. My mom remembered South Philadelphia.
Dotty could sing the words to many songs. She once sang a song I had never heard before in my life. It was called Ghost of a Chance. This song was first made popular in 1932.
I finally concluded (after asking myself why) that Dotty was longing for a time that remained fresh and understandable in her mind. A time when she was safe and secure and knew everyone's name and face.
I decided right then and there that I would make her home in Delray Beach, Florida, the safest, most secure place that Dotty had ever lived. I started putting my arm around my mother's shoulders; I rubbed my cheek on her cheek. And I started telling her how wonderful a place and what a safe place Delray Beach was, and how lucky we were to live here.
I didn't wait until she told me she wanted to go home to do this; I did this during the day to reinforce her. When Dotty would say she wanted to go home, I would respond directly and say, "I don't want you to go anywhere. I want you to stay here with me. It's you and me right now." It took a while, but eventually, Dotty started making that little-Dotty smile and said, "Okay."
It takes a while to imprint something into the mind of a person living with dementia. You have to keep trying and be patient. I somehow convinced my mother she was home. She stopped asking to go back to South Philadelphia. My mom was finally home.
An experience like this can fill an Alzheimer's caregiver's heart with great joy.
I understand that for those of you with a loved one living in a nursing home, your situation is somewhat different. You have to tailor your words to the situation. However, please understand this: it is the feeling, the warmth of your words, and the reassurance you are conveying that make the person living with dementia stick to you like glue. You might also try clearly and concisely stating that the thought of them living far away from you makes you sad; you want to be near them.
My name is Bob DeMarco. I'm the founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room. I understand how Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers feel. I took care of my mom for 8 ½ years — 3,112 days.
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