DIMENSIONS Summer 2007

Traveling with Alzheimer's

Q.I’m considering taking my 76-year old father who has early-stage Alzheimer’s to visit relatives in a nearby state. I can see benefits and drawbacks to both driving and flying. Would you offer suggestions for making the trip go as smoothly as possible?

A.Having AD does not mean that it’s necessary to stop traveling. With careful planning and preparation you can make trips with your loved one a rewarding experience. Tell your father where you are going and when you are leaving. This will allow him to ask you questions. It is also a good time for you to calm his fears.

If you decide to fly, enlisting the services of a good travel agent can be invaluable – don’t be shy about letting him/her know that your father has AD. Handle all flight details in advance so you can truly focus on your father to help create pleasant moments during the trip. Avoid traveling during times of day when your father may become more agitated or tired – many dementia patients become restless and sensitive in the late afternoon. If you must change planes, avoid tight connections. Ask the agent to reserve seats close to the exit so you can be the first ones off. Even if walking is not difficult for your father, consider requesting a wheelchair so that an airport employee is assigned to help you get from place to place in the airport. Ask your agent about contacting the airlines directly to request special assistance (most airlines require at least 48 hours advance notice).

On the day of the flight, call or check online to confirm that your flight is on schedule. Enlisting a friend or family member to drive and drop you off can help conserve your energy. Avoid overstimulation and allow plenty of time for transitions. If your father feels that you are anxious, he may follow suit. Check in early and let airport personnel know that your father has AD. Requests to remove shoes, relinquish bags, etc. at security checkpoints can be upsetting; keep things as light-hearted as possible. While waiting to board, point out things he might enjoy – artwork, colorful shop windows, children playing. Carry healthy snacks and water as well as his medications, a change of clothes and simple activities. A CD or tape player with favorite music may help him relax during take-off and landing. A photo album can also help take his mind off his surroundings – include pictures of the family members you are visiting as this can give him a sense of anticipation and familiarity with those meeting you at the other end.

If traveling by car seems to be a reasonable option (if your father can remain content and relatively quiet for extended periods of time), you may feel more in control of the situation, since you can stop for rests or meals and be more flexible with your time. Avoid crowded attractions or extremely busy restaurants. Bring a familiar pillow and blanket from home – encourage naps. Do what you can to prevent your father from feeling uncomfortably hot or cold. Don’t forget the hat, sunscreen and water bottle! Make the trip fun – point out interesting sights along the way.

At the hotel place your father’s belongings where he can easily see them. Call ahead and ask for a quiet room. Consider bringing a familiar object he can place on his bedside table. Have a cup of tea or coffee and a bowl of cereal in your room in the morning if that is what you normally do at home.

Whichever mode of travel you choose, make sure to allow plenty of time for rest before the trip – for both you and your father. Consult his health care provider for suggestions. You may consider enlisting another traveler – a family member or close friend to share the driving. Keep your dad within sight at all times to prevent wandering. Make sure to have your father’s identification and contact information on his person – make photocopies of important papers (for example: his ID and health coverage info) for his wallet.

If you are traveling for a special event such as a wedding or birthday, allow a few days to settle in beforehand. Gather supporters who are happy to share the responsibility of caring for your loved one during the event. Ask for help from family and friends. Make your goal to have fun, relax and enjoy the details of your trip with your father. Take pictures to remember the trip when you get home. The memories may be only yours to keep forever, but don’t feel bad or let this deter you as it is a blessing to see your father having fun in the moment!

Bon voyage!

Tip: Changes to environment can trigger wandering behavior. Enroll with the Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return® program by calling 1.888.572.8566. Those already enrolled should notify Safe Return of travel plans.

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