Brain Health: Traveling Safe with Dementia

by Maryanne Edmundson, Ph. D., L.P.

You may wonder whether it is safe or advisable to travel if your loved one has dementia. Travel can be accomplished safely if someone has mild (and sometimes moderate) dementia – the key is to be planful, consistent, and flexible.

You should plan ahead. Know the travel routes you will take (including how to navigate an airport!) and safe spots to stop along the way. You may wish to travel to locations where emergency services and pharmacies are accessible. Have all essentials readily available (in carry-on luggage for air travel), including medications, medical supplies, snacks, water, a change of clothes, and hard copies of your itinerary, emergency contacts, updated medical information, and photocopied legal documents (like durable POA or guardianship). 

Plan the transportation type with your loved one in mind. For example, if a person was nervous to fly before dementia began, that nervousness may be amplified and air travel may be especially difficult. Because changes in surroundings can increase confusion and wandering in individuals with dementia, make sure both you and your loved one have wearable identification (such as jewelry) that list your names, emergency contacts, and the fact that your loved one has dementia and you are their caregiver. You may consider joining a program such as the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return, which provides MedicAlert jewelry and a 24-hour nationwide emergency response network for individuals with dementia who may wander or become lost.

Part of planning ahead is ensuring important people are informed of your plans. Give your travel itinerary to family and friends you will visit and to emergency contacts back home, so they can be ready if an emergency arises. You may consider calling family and friends ahead of time to discuss important changes in your loved one (such as tiring in the afternoon or feeling anxious in busy environments) and how they can help be inclusive of your loved one while keeping them calm (such as repeating information as if it is new each time, asking the person to recount well-known stories from the past, being realistic about limitations, and sticking to their routine). If you are a Safe Return program member, you can also alert the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter of your planned trip to their area. If you will be traveling by plane, train, or staying in a hotel, you may wish to inform airline, railroad, and hotel staff of your loved one’s special needs. For example, on check-in, you may provide hotel staff with your loved one’s picture and advise them to alert you and/or escort your loved one back to the room if they are found alone in the hallway at night. For air travel, you may request a motorized gate escort (even if walking is not an issue) and inform TSA at security entry points and flight crew of your loved one’s needs. Some special needs services require at least 48 hours’ notice.

People with dementia may become anxious or agitated with environment changes. When you travel, you may reduce emotional distress by choosing destinations with which the person with dementia is familiar, traveling during the early day (especially if confusion is greater in the evening), allowing plenty of rest time, staying with your loved one at all times, and keeping the daily schedule as close as possible to their home schedule (e.g., having similar medication and meal times). It can also help to keep travel plans simple – the longer and more complex the travel day, the more likely emotional distress with arise. Make sure you can recognize signs that your loved one with dementia is becoming upset, so you can intervene quickly with strategies you know calm them. Because emotions can change quickly, particularly in new surroundings, you need to be flexible so that you can quickly retire to calming surroundings or stop your trip on short notice if needed.

Once dementia becomes more severe and/or travel is no longer relaxing, you should consider alternatives to travel, such as having family and friends come to your home instead.

If you have questions about travel with your loved one with dementia, consult with your local neuropsychologist.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson is a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic. She can be reached at 910-420-8041 or through the website at www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.