We hear from a lot of people about the challenges of traveling. While traveling can be a wonderful respite for everyone involved, especially in early stages of the disease, it does require special planning. Travel impacts routine, schedule and familiarity (with people and surroundings), all of the hallmark comfort criteria for people with Alzheimer’s. Changes in routine and location can trigger stress and disorientation. Each person’s situation is a bit different; talk with your loved one’s doctor about your particular travel plans.
General Travel Tips
Whether a quick trip in the car, or a long-distance trip across the country, a bag of essentials should always be at your side, including extra clothing, snacks, water, medications, activities and relevant toileting supplies. Carry meds in their original prescription bottles. Always carry emergency contact info, photocopies of important documents (insurance, medications, Power of Attorney, advanced directive) and a recent photo of your loved one (in case they wander). Have your loved one wear identification indicating that they have Alzheimer’s, or consider GPS enabled shoes if they won’t leave an ID on. Enroll in the MedicAlert® and Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return® program.
Consider an anti-anxiety medication for travel, and ask whether it is okay to take a “dry run” prior to the trip; some people experience side-effects. Perhaps even take a mini-trip trial run prior to a lengthier trip. Know your limitations and strength. If there have been difficult moments controlling agitation or anxiety in the past, realize that could re-occur. You should consider wearing identification yourself indicating you are a caregiver for an Alzheimer’s patient. If something happens to you, authorities know there is a possible issue with your loved one, especially when traveling.
Visiting family can take your loved one back to a place where they grew up, triggering forgotten memories as well as providing distant family a chance to re-connect. It can also provide respite to you as caregiver. Schedule lots of downtime, consider eating meals at home, and remain on a normal schedule. Can you bring your loved one’s pet, or a favorite pillow or blanket? Ask your host family members to “Alzheimer’s proof” their home. If relevant, prepare family members – especially children – for any hostile or unusual behaviors that may occur. If the host home is too chaotic, consider staying in a hotel so there will be a quiet retreat available.
Minimize chaotic locations or activities where locations are constantly changing (sight-seeing tour). Disorientation can quickly occur, triggering stress and possible behavioral issues or wandering. There are logistics and safety concerns relating to transportation, hotels and meals.
If you decide your loved one and you are up to the task, you might still consider bringing help or looking into whether help is available at your destination point. As much as you can, have a Plan B, starting with travel insurance for the trip, in case a trip must be cancelled at the last minute. Some travel insurance may not cover dementia. Make all tickets refundable and changeable.
Many people travel with their loved one with the goal of respite for all. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t realistic. If respite is truly your goal, don’t feel guilty about scheduling your own trip as a break from your caregiving duties. Have a family member come to stay with your loved one while you take a break. Your mental refresh will help everyone involved.
Book your flights so you don’t have any tight connections or layovers. Allow extra time for everything. You might request a wheelchair whether your loved one needs it or not. TSA Cares is a free helpline to help you with any special needs relating to security screening and carryon luggage (should you need to bring medications or supplies). Book a middle seat for your loved one and keep the aisle seat for yourself; this enables you to keep them in their seat, while still allowing a trip to the restroom without climbing over other passengers. You should carry all documentation, including passports. Board early. If your loved one is in a late stage of Alzheimer’s you could consider a medical flight service.
Notify your hotel that your loved one has Alzheimer’s. You may want to order room service until your loved one feels more acclimated. Bring a water-proof bed-pad for the hotel bed if incontinence is a concern. Bring a night-light to ensure a well-lit path to the bathroom. Purchase bells and tie on your loved one’s shoe strings or on the hotel door-knob, to alert you to potential wandering.
Bottom line is that a trip with your loved one can be a great idea if they are up to the trip and if you have a flexible and adaptable attitude. Don’t take things personally if it doesn’t work out, sometimes the break from routine is just too much for people to deal with. Once home, also recognize there will probably be an adjustment period before your loved one gets back into their pre-travel routine.