In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a person may still value travel as an important part of their life and enjoy the experience. Sometimes, travel is necessary for their medical appointments or treatments. But as the disease progresses, travel may become less enjoyable and more overwhelming — even unsafe. Whether it’s a weekend road trip visiting family and friends or flying to a faraway destination for an extended vacation, caregivers must consider the difficulties and benefits of travel for a loved one with dementia.
“Traveling with a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be challenging,” says Jeremy Cai, CEO of Italic. “However, with the proper preparation and mindset, caregivers can help make the experience more manageable.”
Cai and other experts weigh in on how caregivers can be best prepared for traveling with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease. Use these tips as a guide:
Make a plan and keep a routine.
“Planning is crucial when traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease,” says Cai. “Caregivers should research their destination, find out about any accommodations that may be needed, and pack essential items, like medications and comfortable clothing. It’s also crucial to maintain a sense of routine throughout the trip.”
When planning your trip, consider these tips:
Consider your loved one’s abilities and safety. Discuss any travel with their physician to determine whether or not travel is recommended or safe. If it is, try to pick destinations that were familiar before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and involve as few changes in daily routine as possible.
Advise airlines, hotels, or tour operators that you’re traveling with a person who has memory impairment. Outline your safety concerns and any special needs for your loved one. Jennifer Prescott, RN, MSN, CDP, with Blue Water Homecare and Hospice, advises caregivers flying with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease to contact the TSA Cares program at least 72 hours before leaving for a trip. “This free service will help you and your loved one get through security and make things less stressful. After security, your airline can help with boarding the plane.”
Time your travel and breaks well. If the person with dementia travels better at a specific time of the day, consider planning your trip around it. Schedule time for bathroom, snack, and rest breaks to help prevent your loved one from getting worn out, agitated, and anxious.
Allow extra time, and don’t overschedule. “Don’t overpack your schedule and leave plenty of time for rest,” Prescott adds. You and your loved one may need more time in between activities to decompress. Consider limiting to a single activity or leave plenty of time between activities.
Carry with you an itinerary. Include details about each destination and give copies to all people traveling with your loved one and those they are going to visit. Keep it easily accessible throughout the trip.
Maintain daily routines. Try to stay as close to your loved one’s routine as possible. “This can include sticking to a consistent meal schedule and keeping everyday items on hand, such as a favorite book or blanket,” says Cai.
Come prepared with essential items. Follow the list below to ensure you have everything your loved one needs while traveling.
Pack all the essential items.
There are several essential items that caregivers should have with them when traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease. These include:
- ID cards. “Your loved one should carry a copy of their driver’s license rather than the original, along with a note stating they have memory issues, and the contact numbers for the family members they are traveling with in case they get confused or lost,” says Prescott.
- Cards with additional personal information, including any medical conditions, insurance information, doctor’s contact information, and emergency contacts
- Copies of legal papers (living will, advanced directives, power of attorney, etc.)
- Current photo to show in case they get lost
- Medications and medication list. Make sure all medications are in their original bottles. The National Institute on Aging advises checking that the label on each prescription bottle has the drug name and dose, patient’s name, dosage frequency, and expiration date.
- First aid supplies
- A change of comfortable clothes in case of accidents. Prescott suggests dressing them in bright-colored clothing, making them easier to spot if they wander off.
- A refillable water bottle and snacks to prevent dehydration
- Comfort items. “Familiar items like a favorite pillow or blanket can help provide comfort and stability during the trip,” says Cai.
Be patient and flexible.
Cai reminds caregivers that traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease can be unpredictable, and they must be patient and flexible. This means allowing extra time for tasks like going through security, getting to the gate, and being prepared to adjust plans if needed. Caregivers should also be patient and understanding if their loved one experiences mood changes or unexpected behaviors during the trip.
Prescott adds that caregivers should set the expectation that activities may be different with an aging loved one with Alzheimer’s. “They may not be prepared to visit with family and friends, or they may feel overwhelmed with activities. Things might not always go according to plan, so try to remain patient and loving.”
Create a visual reminder of where they are going.
Mac Steer, owner and director of Australian-based travel company Simify, says it helps to show your loved one a visual reminder of where they are going and what’s waiting for them when they arrive. He suggests showing them a photo of their destination and the people they’ll see there.
“That way, when your loved one starts asking questions about where they are, what’s happening next, and why they can’t remember anything anymore, etc., you can just show them the photo of themselves with their friend and say, ‘See? You’re here!’ This trick has worked wonders for me, and it’s also a great way to keep your loved one from getting too freaked out about all the changes in their life.”
Reduce traveling anxiety, agitation, and boredom.
Steer says caregivers can recognize the warning signs of anxiety and agitation in a loved one while traveling by observing how they act. He advises watching for signs like difficulty focusing, irritability, or unusual behavior, like talking about things that don’t make sense or acting out uncharacteristically.
“If you notice these signs, it’s important to address them immediately,” he says, suggesting these approaches:
- Ask them how they’re feeling and allow them the space to talk about what is causing their anxiety or agitation.
- Try to distract them from whatever is causing them stress by offering something else to focus on instead (e.g., a snack).
- If all else fails, you may need to remove your loved one and yourself from the situation to decompress without having people around who are making them feel uncomfortable or anxious.
When traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, Steer has found that the most important thing is keeping them engaged. “When distracted, they’re less likely to wander off or become confused about where they are.”
He recommends bringing along things like magazines and books to keep them interested in what you’re doing, even if it’s just sitting in the car together. “The goal here is to keep their mind active, so they don’t get bored and start wandering around looking for something better to do than sit quietly in the backseat while you drive somewhere new!”