by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA
Q: My husband and I are both very active and have always loved to travel. Last year, he was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and has been struggling with short-term memory problems. Traveling is becoming more of a challenge, but we are not ready to give it up. Do you have any suggestions to make traveling easier?
A: Changes in a person’s cognitive ability can have an effect on how he or she tolerates things, such as travel. Many of us rely on our routine and environmental cues to keep us on track. When there are problems with short-term memory or the ability to quickly process new information, it can result in feeling unsettled or disoriented.
Travel takes a person out of a familiar environment and typically changes his or her routine, so it can easily lead to insecurity and create underlying emotions related to those changes. Even if it is going to visit family, or someplace you have visited before, it can still be a challenge.
Your husband may be feeling increased frustration, because it is more difficult to do things than it was in the past. When you see him becoming frustrated, ask him what is bothering him and watch for non-verbal cues. He may experience difficulty finding the right words, so be patient and give him time to talk.
There are many aspects of travel that can be unsettling to a person struggling with memory impairment. You and your husband can still travel, but you may need to do more of the planning and make some adaptations to make it feel more manageable for you both.
Here are some travel tips to consider:
- Simplify travel plans so you have one destination.
- Allow for more breaks, if you are driving, and realize that the person with memory impairment should probably not be driving in unfamiliar areas. It is much easier to get disoriented when you are someplace that is unfamiliar.
- Put your travel plan in writing and plan for some down time to rest.
- Try to keep a similar routine to home, including meal times, and wake and sleep times.
- Make sure the bedroom and bathroom have adequate lighting, so if either of you wake up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you can easily find it.
- Keep important items in familiar places. If something always sits on the night stand, make sure it is there when you travel. If the razor and toothbrush are typically on the right side of the sink, place them there when you travel.
- Consider sharing the diagnosis with family or friends who might be traveling with you. This will let others help look for signs of disorientation, and they can provide cues or reminders as needed.
Being in an unfamiliar environment can trigger wandering, so even if that has never happened before, be aware that it is possible. Alert your hotel’s front desk staff to notify you if they see your spouse leaving the property, or up in the middle of the night.
- A lot of chaos and activity can cause anxiety, so if you are in large crowds or big areas, plan for a way to get a break from that or to leave, if necessary.
- Consider an ID bracelet, in case the two of you get separated while traveling.
- Make sure you have all important documents that you may need and a list of current medications and medical providers with you.
- If you are flying, allow plenty of extra time to get through security and to make connections.
- Consider using family restrooms, so if you are in an unfamiliar environment, like at an airport or shopping area, you do not risk getting separated.
There may come a time when travel causes more anxiety than joy. You need to watch for the cues and when adaptations are no longer working, you may come to the conclusion that overnight trips are no longer practical. Suggest family come to see you, or try some simple day trips.
This is a journey you are both on, and it is a different journey for each person. Consider connecting to a local support group, so that you have a support network of other couples who may share similar experiences. You can both continue to live life to the fullest, just keep an open mind and awareness that cognitive changes may impact that experience. Give yourself space and time to adapt.
Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org