Navigating Travel with a Loved One Who Has Alzheimer's Disease

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With the holidays just a few months away, Patty is beginning to contemplate her family’s plans. Her sister in Oklahoma City has extended an invitation to join in her annual celebration; however, Patty is hesitant to accept the invite. As the primary caregiver for their father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last year, she worries that the change in routine and 6-hour road trip may be too much for Dad to handle. Although spending the day with other family is enticing, Patty is unsure of whether the trip would be enjoyable for her father, or if she is setting herself up for an exceptionally stressful holiday away from home. Caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's disease are often hesitant to partake in travel with their care recipient; and understandably so. With wandering, agitation, and confusion being common dementia-related symptoms, it’s easy to see how what seems like a relaxing weekend in the mountains to family and friends can be a source of severe anxiety for those traveling with a loved one living with dementia. However, an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean that travel is impossible. While each individual and caregiver are unique, and travel may not be feasible in the later stages of the disease, many caregivers may find that, with proper preparations, traveling can be an enjoyable break from the norm.


Tips for Travel

Being prepared for the unique challenges of traveling with a care recipient with Alzheimer’s disease can make the experience less intimidating for both caregivers and their loved ones. Here are a few dementia-friendly travel tips:

Honestly evaluate the ability of your care recipient to travel 
Before planning a trip with an individual who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, you’ll probably want to weigh the facts and decide whether or not travel seems reasonable. Are you willing to assume full responsibility for all necessary planning and thinking ahead for two of you? Ask yourself whether disorientation, wandering, and agitation are prominent symptoms of your care recipient’s condition. If these symptoms cause issues in your daily routines, they may become even more severe in unfamiliar surroundings, and make travel more stressful, or even dangerous.

Arm your care recipient with adequate identification 
If travel still seems like a reasonable option for you and your care recipient, be sure to equip them with adequate identification before travel. An ID bracelet, or other identification methods such as a wearable GPS unit that can’t be easily removed or lost, may help ease your mind in case of an unexpected separation from your care recipient. Consider listing the individual’s name and your cell phone number on this identification to ensure that anyone trying to assist your loved one is able to easily get ahold of you.

Keep a photo and a calling card with you 
Carry a current photo of your care recipient with you, just in case you become separated in an airport, at a gas station, or anywhere else you may need the help of others to reunite. Carry a laminated card that briefly details that your loved one has dementia. Hand it to fellow travellers or airline staff to offer a frank, discrete, disclosure while saving embarrassment and frustration.

Ask for special accommodations 
Many travel companies, such as airlines or bus operators, will make efforts to provide special accommodations for caregivers traveling with a memory-impaired loved one. When booking any travel tickets, let the agent know that you’re traveling with an impaired individual. They may be able to help you book the bulkhead seats with more leg room or closer to the restroom, or allow you to board early to avoid the hustle and bustle of boarding unfamiliar transportation that could cause undue agitation in an individual with dementia.

Plan breaks in your day 
While travel can be a rushed event, planning breaks for quiet time can be especially important for caregivers and care recipients working with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia. If flying, arrive early and take the time to sit in a quiet spot for 20 or so minutes to wind down, or take a break from road trips to grab a snack at a quiet diner. These opportunities can give both you, and your care recipient, a chance to catch your breath. Bring an occupied sign for restrooms if your assistance is required. Carry a change of clothing and an item of comfort for your loved one.

Pack lightly 
Lugging an oversized bag around the airport is difficult enough when you’re alone. Doing it while acting as a caregiver on-the-go can be next to impossible. Pack as lightly as possible, or check bags when possible. Keep a lightweight bag with you full of your care recipient's favorite snacks, medications, and emergency contacts in case of emergency. Less in your hands will help give you more attention to focus on your care recipient.

Maintain routines 
While not everything will be the same, it’s important to control what you can to help your care recipient feel that some of their routine is in place. Try to keep mealtimes and bedtimes on a similar schedule to those at home, and whenever possible, schedule flights and drives around these times to help reduce the risk of unexpected agitation. Carry all medication with you instead of packing it in any checked luggage.

Have a “Plan B”
Traveling with a person living with the memory loss and confusion of Alzheimer's disease can be an adventure. Due to unexpected agitation, confusion, or disorientation, things may not always go according to plan. To help manage your own anxiety in case things get off track, try to keep an alternate plan in your back pocket. Plan for extra time, different places you can stop on the road for a break, or alternate flights in case of major travel issues. You may also consider purchasing trip insurance in case of a need to cancel plans completely. Make sure someone knows your exact itinerary, and ask for a commitment that they will come to you should you become ill or need extra assistance. Take pictures of the family enjoying each other's company and having  fun. Although your  loved one may forget the vacation experience in short order, they can enjoy your pictures and your stories about them much longer. While traveling with a care recipient who has Alzheimer's disease or some form of dementia can be a definite challenge, it can also be delightful. Caregivers may find that they, and their loved ones, are capable of taking some travel time away with the proper preparations and the right frame of mind.