What to do when elders repeat their words

By Cristian G. •  Updated: 09/30/22 •  6 min read

It’s heartbreaking to hear an elder repeat like a mantra the words, “I want to go home.” Most caregivers of elders who have dementia, particularly dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, know this refrain.

They tell the person they are home. They try all kinds of stunts to comfort the elder, but the results rarely last.

The reason? The elder wants to go to his childhood home, one that no longer exists. Caregivers need to learn techniques to handle this agonizing problem.

The first time a caregiver hears a parent say, “I want to go home,” it seems to make sense. Dad is in a nursing home. He wants to go back to where he lived before. Sometimes it’s possible to take him there. Then, surprisingly, the carer again hears, “I want to go home.” Now real frustration begins. “You are home!” you insist.

It’s natural to think your dad wanted to leave the nursing home and go back home to where he lived before. But this? This doesn’t make sense. Even adult children who take care of their parent at home are subjected to this heartbreak. They still hear, “I want to go home.”

The key is that the parent is asking to go to the home of his childhood. This home may or may not still be standing, but even if it is, it’s not likely to look the same as it did 70 years ago. Everything changes. So how do you cope?

Short-term Memory Loss Takes Them Back In Time

As people increasingly lose brain function to dementia, they often return to the past. Short-term memory is what goes first when most dementias strike. It is thought that as the disease progresses the person goes further and further back in memory until in their mind they are a teenager or even a young child.

Some researchers think much of the inappropriate behavior of men who have Alzheimer’s toward young women–sometimes a daughter-in-law or other female relative–stems from the fact that the man feels as though he’s in his teens or twenties. Why, he’s an attractive young man and this woman may be interested in him! He doesn’t recognize the woman, so he sees nothing wrong with his behavior. Of course, inhibitions of all kinds are known to diminish in both sexes as Alzheimer’s progresses, but this particular type of behavior may stem from a less generalized loss of inhibition.

The Stranger in the Mirror

People with Alzheimer’s are often afraid of the “stranger in the mirror.” That stranger is their own reflection because they no longer recognize themselves. That’s not so hard to understand when we think of how, in daily life, we rarely look closely at our aging parents. Then, an event of some kind happens–an illness or other stressful occasion–and we actually see our parents. Then we may think, “Man, they are getting old!”

We do the same thing with ourselves. We see the same face in the mirror everyday and don’t notice that each day we age. But, from time to time, an event may happen and we realize, yes, we have aged.

Take that normal behavior and look at it through the confused eyes of a person with dementia. People in this stage feel they are young, so how could this old face in the mirror be them? That doesn’t make sense to them, so they think the person is a stranger and why are they in the house? Many caregivers keep mirrors in the home covered so the elder with Alzheimer’s isn’t upset by each glance. This is much the same thought process that makes them want to go home, meaning their childhood home, which is the only home they remember. They think of themselves as young.

Approaches to Get You Through It

You likely can’t take them to the home they want to go to, so:

This is one more of those heartbreaking stages of dementia that the best caregiver in the world cannot change. Photo albums from days gone by can help. Music and DVDs of old TV shows or movies may help. Any kind of distraction may help. But in the end, you’ll hear it again. “I want to go home.”

You will blink back the tears and get on with life. This, too, shall pass.

Cristian G.