Understanding homesickness

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.

At around the same time I read an article by pediatrician and medical writer Dr. Peri Klass2 on homesickness, in which she reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics characterizes homesickness, seen in college freshmen as well as younger children, as marked by preoccupying and recurring thoughts focused on one’s house, loved ones, home cooking and returning home. But adults get homesick too, Klass wrote. Her case in point was Odysseus, whose homesickness is described in The Odyssey. Reading Matt’s book, I learned that he wasn’t the only one. For example, in colonial America, those not too few adventurous pilgrims who got very homesick were sent back on the next ship with the good wishes of their fellow pioneers. During the Civil War, homesickness was treated as a serious emotional malady, akin to a grievous physical wound that warranted a return home before it resulted in the soldier’s death.

With the opening of the American western frontier and the era of rugged individualism, writes Matt, homesickness came to be viewed as a weakness and was seen as a failure to be tough enough to overcome the challenges of frontier life. In the early and mid-20th century, its meaning continued to be even more deeply rooted in a narrative of failure, and homesick people were seen as having failed to transfer their loyalty from home and the warmth of childhood to the organization that employed and relocated them.  Homesickness came to be seen as a sign of immaturity and ultimately, “the private feeling became transformed to a socially recognized problem and a disease”.2

Migration and the failure to withstand its pressures (chiefly dislocation from all that was familiar) went from acceptable and a call to sympathy to being stigmatic. It is interesting to note that the late social psychologist and authority on institutions Dr. Seymour Sarason, described himself and his fellow residents of a long-term care community (also uprooted from their homes, he writes) as migrants.

With this background, I began to consider whether people like the elder in the scenario above might be feeling homesick, and whether we were misinterpreting responses to being uprooted and now living in an institutional environment like hers as signs of weakness—a failure to be tough enough to deal with the facts of their lives. And if this were the case, maybe history can teach us a better response to those who experience it. Although we may not be able to send all the homesick home, as our colonial and Civil War era forebearers did, we can look to restore those aspects of home that mean familiarity (feeling like one is part of a family) and value its in elder members. 

Like Odysseus, the homesickness of our elders may be the “straining for no more than a glimpse of the hearth-smoke drifting up”1 from their own land. If we don’t have a literal hearth, our understanding of their homesickness and restoring what home really means can provide a figurative one.


  1. Klass P. When technology means never learning to let go. New York Times. July 10, 2012.

2.   Matt S. Homesickness: An American History. New York: 2011.


Topics: Clinical , Executive Leadership