There are some conversations that just stick in your head. You don’t consciously choose them; they just get in and are ready to be replayed in response to a trigger you don’t choose. Psychologists call these latent memories.
Here is one variety that I have heard again and again during my 30 years working in long-term care settings. The words are slightly different each time, but the dialogue comes down to something like this:
Worker (to recently arrived elder who is softly weeping): Why are you so sad?
Elder: I don’t like it here. It’s not home. I miss my home.
Worker: But this is your home now.
Elder: It’s not the same. You know that.
Worker: You have new friends, a nice room with your family pictures and your favorite chair—it’s just like home. People get used to it, and besides, we need to take care of you so living at home wasn’t a good idea. It’s better here for you.
Elder: I don’t see how it’s the same. I really miss my house and old friends and my cat.
Worker: You’re just a little homesick, that’s all. I’ll look in on you tomorrow and see how you are doing.
The worker, perhaps an admissions coordinator, social worker, nurse or other staff, may even think: “She is really resistant to placement. I wonder if she is in denial about her need to be here. Maybe I should talk to someone about a mental health consult.” As a former consulting psychologist, I was asked to help with many such concerns over my career, although my approach was to see it from the elder’s perspective and not deny her reality—it was not the home she had left and she needed some assistance working through this significant loss. But a recent visit to a bookstore started me looking at such events through a different lens.
As I scanned the shelves that day, my eye was drawn to a book by historian Susan J. Matt titled Homesickness: An American History.1 I recently had been doing a good bit of writing and lecturing about home and other spaces as psychosocial environments, so maybe I was primed to respond to the word “home.” But homesickness struck a chord, not just because I remember experiencing it as a 7-year-old going to summer camp, but I think because I had a moment of insight that maybe this was what I had seen in nursing homes residents who experienced adjustment difficulties after entering. Maybe children in summer camp experience what elders in nursing homes do, but the kids will go back home; elders likely will not.