Dementia patients thrive in familiar environments and with a familiar routine. The more consistent the timing, frequency, and types of activities, the better they function and the better they feel. Adherence to routine creates a sense of safety, enhanced by the certainty of what is coming next. It avoids confusion. Families of patients in the earlier stages of the disease often notice the emerging need to follow routines, i.e., Dad only wants to go to the same restaurant and once there, he always orders the same dish.
Routine, however, gets interrupted when traveling. While exploring new places is exciting to most people, it can be stressful for the cognitively impaired. Consider how the changes related to travel can affect even the healthiest of people! Being away from familiar surroundings, eating and sleeping in unfamiliar places, adapting to time zone changes, facing disruptions in sleep pattern, having to speak and interact with strangers such as airport and hotel staff, and having to follow directions that may not be fully understood—all can be highly confusing for dementia patients. Confusion causes distress which can result in unusual, potentially catastrophic behavior.
People with dementia, however, can and do travel—some because they need to, others because it is fun. With appropriate support and preparedness, traveling with a person with dementia can be safe and enjoyable.
When considering travel, the first thing to keep in mind is that NO person with dementia should ever travel unaccompanied. There are too many decisions to make, directions to follow, and unfamiliar surroundings to navigate. A person with dementia will find it all overwhelming and may not be able to complete the journey.
Another important consideration here is what stage of dementia the person is in. As a rule of thumb, patients in Stages 6 and 7 are too advanced and vulnerable and should not travel. If in doubt about which stage your loved one is in and if travel is appropriate, ask your doctor.
The ability to travel, even when carefully considered, should not be taken for granted. The interruption in regular routines, the difference in daily activities, the novelty of new surroundings, and interactions with unfamiliar people all may generate anxiety that can cause a person in Stage 5 to present advanced troublesome symptoms most typical of Stage 6. Remember, what many travelers find exciting is quite troubling to those with dementia.
You can minimize the risks of confusion and anxiety with careful planning and preparation for your journey. Here are some essential precautions for safe and comfortable travel with a person with dementia:
- Consult with your doctor prior to your trip and ask for an anti-anxiety medication to be used in case of emergency. Also ask for a letter indicating the diagnosis and carry it with other travel documents.
- Create an itinerary that includes details about each destination. Give copies to emergency contacts at home.
- Be sure to have medications, your travel itinerary, insurance cards, names and phone numbers of physicians, your identification and the person with dementia’s identification in your carry-on luggage, not in your checked luggage.
- Place a card with complete contact information for the hotel or people you will be visiting inside the person’s purse or pocket.
- Have a bag of essentials with you at all times with a comfortable change of clothes, water, snacks, and activities.
- Avoid scheduling flights that require tight connections. Keep your travel plans simple with as few layovers and flight changes as possible.
- Stick with the familiar. Travel to known destinations that involve as few changes in daily routine as possible. Try to visit places that were familiar before the onset of dementia.
- Inform the airline and airport medical service departments of your needs ahead of time to make sure they can help you. Most airlines will work with you to accommodate special needs.
- If appropriate, tell airport employees, TSA screeners, and in-flight crew members that you are traveling with someone who has dementia. However, keep in mind that they are not dementia experts and may not know what to do with that information.
- Even if walking is not difficult, consider requesting a wheelchair so that an airport employee is assigned to help you get from place to place.
- If you will be staying in a hotel, inform the staff ahead of time of your specific needs so they can be prepared to assist you.
- Travel during the time of day that is best for the person with dementia.
- Changes in environment can trigger wandering. Even for a person in early stages, new environments may be more difficult to navigate. Register the person with dementia with the Medic Alert + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program. If the person is already registered in the program, notify Safe Return of your travel plans. Have the person wear the ID bracelet at all times. A GPS locator that can be worn by the person with dementia is highly recommended.
With proper preparation and careful planning, traveling will be enjoyable and fun for both of you.