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.