Navigating Travel with a Loved One who Has Dementia
12 Tips for a Successful Trip
Written by: Maria D’Souza, MD MPH, Medical Director of COMPASS
Participating in family gatherings and maintaining or re-kindling connections with cherished destinations are deeply meaningful experiences for older adults. However, traveling for such activities becomes challenging when a person is affected by dementia, particularly once the disease has progressed beyond early stages. Family members and caregivers frequently seek guidance around whether it is advisable to travel and how they can plan for a safe, enjoyable experience.
While each individual’s circumstances are unique, here are some broadly applicable tips to bear in mind when preparing to travel with a loved one who has dementia:
1. PLAN AHEAD.
Think carefully about logistics of the trip to anticipate potential difficulties and how you will handle them. Be prepared so you can more easily cope with challenges in the moment. Consider researching hospitals, pharmacies, etc. near your destination.
2. CHOOSE FAMILIAR DESTINATIONS.
Well-known locations have the potential advantage of being less overwhelming to the person with dementia, which may make them less vulnerable to episodes of confusion and agitation. For the same reasons, avoid overstimulating or chaotic settings.
3. STICK TO ROUTINES.
As much as possible, preserve usual mealtimes, bedtimes, and other rituals or habits. This can go a long way towards helping the person feel calm and secure. On a related note, consider whether there are specific items you can bring along that are comforting and help the person feel grounded.
4. PLAN AROUND THEIR OPTIMAL TIME OF DAY.
For example, if the person with dementia is not at their best in the late afternoon, it would not be wise to schedule travel or taxing activities at that time.
5. DON’T OVER-SCHEDULE.
Keep plans simple and allow for downtime. Expect that the person may prefer sticking to usual activities over something new. They may be okay eating at restaurants at home, while the same kind of outing in an unfamiliar place, with their cognitive reserves stretched to the limit, may be overwhelming.
6. BUILD IN EXTRA TIME.
This is particularly important in relation to travel logistics and transitions between activities. For example, if flying, plan to arrive at the airport with plenty of extra time and avoid scheduling flights with tight connections.
7. TSA CONSIDERATIONS:
Print a “TSA Disability Notification Card” from the TSA website to efficiently notify personnel that the person has cognitive impairment. You can also call ahead to arrange for special assistance, including private screening.
8. BRING ADDITIONAL SUPPORT.
Consider traveling with friends or family who can provide assistance. While you may typically be able to manage your own and your loved one’s needs, this may not be feasible outside your usual environment. Your loved one may need someone to help ensure they don’t wander if unexpectedly disoriented, especially if you aren’t able to be with them 100% of the time.
9. PACK A BAG OF ESSENTIALS.
This should include medications, go-to activities (i.e. iPad and headphones, magazines), snacks, and personal care items. Bring hard copies of the person’s medication list, photocopies of important legal documents such as healthcare power of attorney, emergency contact information, and doctors’ phone numbers so these can be easily shared with others if needed.
10. OBTAIN A MEDICAL ID BRACELET.
Obtain a medical ID bracelet stating the person’s name, memory loss, and emergency contacts. The potential for unpredictable disorientation or wandering is increased in unfamiliar settings.
11. MAINTAIN BASIC NEEDS.
Ensure your loved one’s needs for adequate hydration, rest, and comfort (i.e. pain medications, suitable footwear, etc.) are met. These can be overlooked outside of familiar routines, causing adverse consequences like irritation, confusion, or illness.
12. BE FLEXIBLE AND MANAGE EXPECTATIONS.
This is perhaps most important. Expect that things may not go according to plan. Bringing a flexible attitude and remaining calm will help your loved one AND yourself. If possible, driving to your destination may be wise in case your loved one is having a tougher time than expected and you decide to leave earlier than planned. Purchasing travel insurance can make it easier to exercise good judgment and flexibility.
As the Alzheimer’s Association aptly states online, “living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia does not mean it’s necessary to stop participating in meaningful activities such as travel. However, it does require planning to ensure safety, comfort, and enjoyment for everyone.”
Dr. Maria D’Souza is a geriatrician who brings special expertise in dementia care to JFS Delaware’s COMPASS program. As Medical Director, she leads an interdisciplinary team in providing comprehensive medical care for individuals with dementia and critical support and resources to caregivers.