When my mother was in the last months of her life, and suffering from moderate dementia, she told her caregiver she wanted to go home and several times tried to “escape” from her apartment in a senior facility to get back to that home— wherever or whatever it was.
Recently, a friend who has Parkinson’s and who also experiences dementia has started wandering away from her mountain cabin, telling her worried husband and the people who find her on the road that she wants to go home. When strangers ask her where that is, she’s unable to tell them, except that it’s “hundreds” of miles away.
She and her husband, both in their 80s, have lived in their cabin for almost 20 years; it’s a place they both love. In their younger years they hiked almost every trail in a 40-mile radius. If that’s not home, is it the place in North Dakota where she worked as a hospice nurse for 30 years? Or is it her childhood home in upstate New York?
For my mother, was it the home where she and my father raised our family, in the suburbs of Chicago? Or was it her childhood home on the west side of Chicago?
I have a feeling that, at the end of our lives, we all long to go back to the place where we began. Among all the uncertainties and troubles of old age, we desire to return to a place that feels familiar and comforting. No matter what problems we had when we were young, most of us were surrounded by family, friends and neighbors and went to school and church—we were part of a community. That’s not true so much as people get older. In old age, we’ve lost family and friends, and a familiar culture.
Although my mother’s childhood was not an easy one, she had relatives living in the upstairs flat, so she was surrounded by family members. As a mother and wife, she was connected to her children and husband, plus a neighborhood with other large families, where she made friends easily. In contrast, after my father died, my mother lived alone for three years in an independent living facility where she had few friends and felt isolated most of the time. No wonder she wanted to return to some version of home—a place where she was unquestioningly part of the world.
If “home” is our childhood, we want to return to a life that felt more intense. When I first moved to Boulder, I volunteered to interview older residents about their memories of growing up here, which would have been the 1920s and ‘30s. They remembered small details—how blackberry bushes grew along the back of the fence behind their home, the smell of the cornbread their mother baked, the sound of the Fourth of July parades. But life as an adult, especially after the big events like marriage and having children, was mostly a blur or told in general outlines—where they worked and what they did—but not what it felt like. Somewhere along the way, they had lost the intense feelings of childhood.
When we’re children, we absorb everything without filters—both the happy and painful times. But gradually, as we get older, we start narrowing our focus, shutting out what doesn’t feel comfortable and seeking out what makes us feel good. This makes life more manageable and less painful, lets us survive in the work world or just the world outside of ourselves. But we also stop feeling as much as we did as children.
Maybe home is a virtual place where we feel safe and secure but also where we are alive to everything around us. It’s a place where our bodies aren’t falling apart, where are minds are still sharp and where death is far away. Maybe that’s why our older selves ache for that vision of home.
In the last few months of my father’s life, he kept trying to go to work. His anger, resentment, and blaming had made his home life miserable, but as a trades unionist he was regarded as something of a hero. Work was where he got his strokes. So he would keep trying to get out of bed so that he could get dressed and drive to work, as he had done for so many years. One day he managed to wriggle himself to the edge of the bed and fall out, hitting his head on his oxygen canister on his way to the floor. For his last 36 hours he lay unconscious, breathing evenly, until his breath simply stopped. The funeral was announced with two days’ notice, and for some reason, was held at a church in an area served by very little public transportation. Yet that church was packed to the rafters with weeping workers. We family members, sitting in the front pews, largely felt the relief of saying goodbye to a deeply damaged and abusive husband and father; but the workers mourned the passing of their champion. So for my father, his heart lay at a different kind of “home.”
What a wonderful and illuminating story about your father. It speaks to how we present ourselves to the world in different ways and how people perceive us. And I wonder if women more than men want to return “home”–to the hearth.
One day when I was coming back from the mailbox (which is half a block away), appreciating the smells and the sights to trees and birds and puddles, I was struck by how much closer I was to the outdoor world when I was a child–and I mean that literally: closer to the ground, closer to the feel of a tree or the the scent of a flower. We lay on the grass, made daisy chains out of clover, picked blackberries that grew wild in the neighborhood, sucked the nectar from nasturtiums, tasted whatever grew wild, either on a dare or out of curiosity. And we explored all those places where we were forbidden to go, so we knew where to catch tadpoles and where to pick wild iris and lupin. We had an intimate relationship with California poppies, coming home from a tramp up the hill with golden poppy dust on our fingers and noses. We climbed trees, made forts under the shrubbery, and knew the best places to hide in a game of hide-and-seek. All of that hit me that day with the smell of rain-wet earth in my nose and the sight of blooming clover. We knew plants and bugs and birds by the feathers they dropped. I felt connected to everything around me during those years, and maybe that’s the sense of home I long for sometimes–being free under the protection of my parents and my home. In the religion of my mother’s family, dying is being called home to Jesus, and Jesus (God) is that patriarchal protector. This is an insightful post, Kath, and gives me much to think about. Thank you.
Thanks, Verna. I love your description of your childhood pursuits. My girlfriends and I called it “exploring”–whether it was the nearby creek, the woods or someplace else. We were free to let our curiosity lead us wherever it might take us. I still do that, to a lesser extent, but I’m more cautious and more wary now. Maybe we all need to just get back down in the grass again and inhale.
I’ve heard this comment so many times when working in long term care facilities. Usually it was from people so close to the end of their life and I always assumed they wanted to go back to their essence or in Christian connotation to heaven. I felt as if they were already getting a glimpse of the beyond, as they were beginning to let go of this world. Simply a sense of knowing, a bigger picture….z
I’m interested to know that it’s something common. I like the idea that people want to go back to their essence. That does feel like part of the aging process.
I read somewhere this quote. I don’t remember who wrote it. “The point of all our living is to get ready to die.” Seems true. After all is said and done, we want to go home.
That’s partly the philosophy of Buddhism: that throughout our lives we need to prepare ourselves for death. After all, the minute we’re born, we start aging.