Traveling with Dementia
by Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP
Traveling with a loved one who has dementia can be challenging and intimidating. Families often long to be together over the holidays, but it’s important to be realistic about the challenges and limitations of traveling with someone who is cognitively impaired. Before promising to go, caregivers need to ask themselves a few questions:
First, is this a trip you desire to take or one you’re taking because you feel obligated? If the answer is the latter, consider giving yourself permission to cancel the trip and let your family or friends know that traveling won’t work for your family at this time.
Second, will you – and your loved one – enjoy this time away? Again, if the visit isn’t going to be enjoyable for anyone, consider whether it might be just as fulfilling to connect with distant loved ones through Skype or Facetime.
Finally, if you do decide to travel, plan ahead to minimize undue stress. The first thing you’ll need to consider is how you will get to your destination.
If flying is the best or only option:
Schedule flights at times when your family member has the most clarity and the least confusion. For example, if the afternoon is the time when your loved one is restless or confused, schedule an early morning flight.
Inform the airline that you are traveling with someone with dementia.
Remember that you need to stay together in the airport - and remember that family bathrooms are not just for parents and small children. A family bathroom can be a lifesaver, especially if you’re traveling with a loved one of the opposite sex.
Pack important medications in a carry- on bag, along with a change of clothes in case of incontinence issues or lost luggage. If your family member has a game, music, or another item that brings them comfort, be sure they have it with them on the plane, along with a blanket or pillow to ensure they are as comfortable as possible.
If you are traveling by car:
Calculate how many hours you’ll be in the car and realistically consider whether this is a reasonable distance to drive. If the trip doesn’t go well, will you be able to return in a single day, or will it take longer? Your loved one may need more breaks than usual on a long trip, so be sure to allow plenty of time for rest stops.
If possible, avoid driving when traffic is heaviest; stop-and-go traffic can frustrate you and your loved one who has dementia.
Bring along your loved one’s favorite music to play in the car; listening to familiar melodies can be relaxing and soothing.
Keep it simple
Whether you are traveling for a reunion, vacation, or holiday event, maintain as much of your loved one’s daily routine as possible. Give yourself permission to let go of traditions that are impossible to fulfill or will not be rewarding for you and your loved one. Instead of one large gathering, you may want to consider a few smaller gatherings that are not as overwhelming. Let others take care of the cooking and similar responsibilities.
Skip the family quiz show
Ask friends and family members not to engage your loved one in a guessing game about who is present or when they last got together. Instead of asking a loved one if they remember their niece Jane, say “Look, it’s our niece Jane!” People may be tempted to bring out old photos to share with your loved one, but ask them not to ask questions about whether they recognize themselves or others in the pictures. Instead, chat about outfits or what the people in the picture might be smiling or laughing at. If there is any recognition, your loved one will share it voluntarily. Your relatives and friends will appreciate you letting them know how they can help avoid unneeded stress for your loved one with dementia.