Traveling with someone who has dementia (this article first appeared in AAA’s EnCompass magazine)

Portrait of a senior couple at sea at sunset

My husband, Morris, loved to travel so much that he memorized plane and train schedules for fun. Until he developed Alzheimer’s, that is. When he was unable to convert dollars into the local currency on our 25th anniversary trip through France and Spain, I realized something was very wrong. He followed me like a puppy dog around Barcelona and was afraid to hop on the subway. I was forced to read maps (not something I’m great at) and choose where to go and what to see, without any input. It was like traveling with a young child. My suspicion that he had Alzheimer’s was confirmed when we returned home.

That winter we went to an all-inclusive resort on the Riviera Maya, south of Cancun, to escape from our new reality. The last-minute get-away helped alleviate the stress of worrying about the future. But I couldn’t totally relax because I quickly learned that you can’t trust someone with dementia to find their way back to an unfamiliar hotel room.

Since he had been an avid lap-pool swimmer, I later took Morris on a quick trip to Glenwood Springs for a soak in the mineral pools. I was concerned that he would have trouble getting dressed in the locker room without my help. My first question to the staff was, “Do you have a family changing room?”

They actually have two, complete with toilet, sink, shower, and fold-down bench. There are also three ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessible rooms in the new restroom facility near the kid’s area at the west end of the property. 

Changing was easy. But Morris was afraid to get into the pool. I later learned that people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty with depth perception and peripheral vision. Their eyes might be healthy, but changes in the brain affect the way they process visual information and alters their perception of the world and how they understand it.

I wish I had known this before our family took a trip to Arches National Park. Morris was terrified as we slowly made our way through the Devil’s Garden. And I became impatient with him, not realizing that he probably felt as though he was about to fall off a cliff.

The good news is that you can travel with someone who has dementia. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s doable in the early stages. It just takes more planning, patience, and time. Our family took several fun trips to Hawaii with Morris after his diagnosis. They were even more special than our previous trips because we wanted to enjoy every precious moment together.

20 Tips for traveling with someone with dementia

It’s inevitable that routines will be disrupted while traveling. Here’s how to make it easier on yourself and the person you are caring for.

  1. Don’t leave home without an ID bracelet or wearable GPS unit that can’t be easily removed by your traveling companion. List the person’s name and your cell number on the ID. If the person can still use a cell phone, make sure your number is the emergency contact.
  2. Keep a current photo of your care recipient with you in case you get separated. And carry a laminated card that briefly explains that they have dementia. Showing this to service people helps to avoid frustration, impatience, confusion, and embarrassment.
  3. Consider staying in a hotel rather than with relatives who may be alarmed by or unfamiliar with dementia symptoms. If there’s any sort of drama in the household, this will only add to everyone’s confusion and frustration.
  4. Let the hotel staff know ahead of time of special needs. Ask for a vase of flowers to be placed in your room. They always seem to freshen up the environment.
  5. Bring an aromatherapy diffuser that plugs into the wall. Aromatherapy works like magic to allay anxiety. Put a few drops of lavender oil, sage, geranium, rose, or ylang ylang oil on a pillowcase, or handkerchief that you can stick in a shirt pocket, or in a diffuser. Try out different blends before your trip to see what your traveling companion prefers. Essential oils and diffusers are available at natural food stores and online.
  6. Try to avoid noisy, crowded situations that might provoke anxiety, fear, or confusion. Instead, visit tranquil environments such as art museums and galleries, botanical gardens, and special interest museums. If you’re meeting friends or family, picnic in a beautiful park. If children are included, choose a park with a playground.
  7. Have afternoon tea, cookies, and fruit in your hotel room, and allow time for a nap.
  8. Ice cream treats always work when the going gets rough!
  9. If you’re flying, book a direct flight and limit flight time to under four hours.
  10. Pack everything in a light backpack to carry on board, if possible, to avoid waiting at baggage claim. Carry documents and medications with you.
  11. Leave the lace-up shoes at home. Velcro shoes or slip-on shoes are a must.
  12. Most airports have a seating area a few feet from where you pick up your belongings, where you can put yourselves back together.
  13. Just beyond that is a handicapped seating area where you can hitch a ride on an electric cart that brings you to your gate.
  14. Use the family restrooms, rather than the public restrooms. Your traveling companion will appreciate the help.
  15. Take advantage of early boarding.
  16. Bring your own food, snacks, and water. Make sure you don’t bring anything that qualifies as a liquid. That includes yogurt.
  17. Let flight attendants know about special needs. They are more than willing to help.
  18. Don’t worry about your companion getting locked inside the cabin restroom. It is possible to open the door from the outside.
  19. Bring an iPad or headphones for entertainment and relaxation.
  20. Sit back and try to relax!

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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