Traveling With Dementia
Every year when the holidy season approaches families wonder whether they will be able to travel one more year with their loved one who has Alzheimer's Disease or another dementia.
With the right preparation it's quite possible to travel with someone who has dementia in the early stages of the disease. If the illness has progressed to the more difficult middle stages travel may not be a good idea.
Janice Smiley tells the tale of her trek to the "family compound" last year for Thanksgiving:
"I thought Harold would really enjoy one more gathering of the clan for Thanksgiving. That's one trip I will certainly never forget!'
"We lost John in the airport when I made the mistake of asking him to wait for me outside the restroom. A Redcap found him trying to hail a cab outside. Then he kept trying to open the window on the plane, which made our third seatmate really antsy. At the big dinner he kept wanting to leave the table - I think there was just too much going on and it made him very uncomfortable. My nephew the doctor gave him a prescription to take before the trip home. It zoned him out so much I could hardly get him off the plane. I'll never do that to either of us again. I was a wreck and it took Harold almost a month to calm down."
There are a number of signs that travel may be more than your elder can tolerate this year. Before you make travel plans, consider if your elder has any of these issues. If so, travel may not be a good idea this year:
Is your loved one with dementia often disoriented, agitated or aggressive even when at home? Unfamiliar surroundings will only make things worse.
Does your loved one want to wander? Wandering behavior will likely be worse in unfamiliar surroundings.
Is your loved one now fearful of new places and experiences? The often crowded and uncomfortable surroundings and many new faces encountered while traveling may be overwhelming.
If your elder isn't experiencing any of these behaviors yet, and you would like to try a trip, there are several things you can do to make travel more comfortable and enjoyable both for you and for your elder with dementia.
Air Travel with Dementia
Try to schedule all flights on low-travel days. The days before and after Thanksgiving, or the days before and after Christmas are very busy days. Airports will be packed, and activity and noise levels will be high. Someone with dementia may not care if you celebrate the holiday a few days early or a few days after the fact.
Make sure your person with dementia is wearing full identification. In addition to an identification bracelet, which can always be removed, be sure that your elder's full name and your cell number are clearly printed on clothing that won't be removed, such as the waistband of slacks. If your elder will wear one, a neck pouch with full identification can be hung around the neck and hidden under a shirt, where it may be less annoying. If your elder carries a wallet or a purse, be sure the information is there, also.
Never allow your person with dementia to carry anything important, even for a minute. You must keep all tickets, passports and other identification, money, medications, schedules, and anything else important with you at all times.
In airports be aware that some large bathrooms have more than one entry/exit. Avoid sending your dementia patient into the restroom alone. Look for family or handicapped restrooms where you can go in together.
Make sure you have a list of important contacts with you, such as your family doctor, and the names and address of your destination, and any other important numbers incuding your elder's pharmacy.
Bring along two copies of your dementia person's current medication list.
Pack lightly, use luggage with wheels, and check your bags through to your final destination. Keep all medications and a change of clothing with you in the cabin.
Carry a current photograph of your elder, just in case.
Book early, and ask for seats as close to the onboard restroom as possible. Bulkhead seats provide a little more room.
Tell the airline that you are traveling with an impaired person. You may be permitted to board early, and they may have personnel available to assist you in the terminal.
Keep your sense of humor, and never hesitate to ask for help if necessary.
Remember that any kind of travel, but particularly air travel, is stressful for everyone. Someone with dementia may be more confused and upset by the change in routine, even after you have arrived at your destination.
Plan to take several "quiet time" periods every day. Plan to sleep in the same room with your loved one, and be prepared for both of you to have poor quality sleep in a strange room and strange bed. If necessary, place a wedge under the bedroom door and place a chair in front of the door to reduce nighttime wandering. Plan to make the trip together if bathroom visits are necessary at night.
Plan also for personal recovery time when you are back home. Travel with someone who has dementia can be exhausting, and you will probably need rest yourself when you're back home. Be sure to have enough food and supplies on hand so you don't have to shop immediately on your return. The laundry and other "catch-up" jobs can wait a few days while you rest and recover.
Well-planned trips can be just as fun and exciting for someone with dementia as for you, if you plan early, plan well, and stay realistic. If your dementia patient can remember and look forward to a trip, will enjoy being away, and will be able to handle the stress of travel with a minimum of upset, then go. You may not have many more opportunities. If not, then it might be a better idea to plan something "lower-key" and closer to home.