With the holiday season in full swing, you may have already booked your flights and are starting to plan your next trip to visit friends and family. But if someone you know is living with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, you might be wondering if travel is even a realistic option for them in the first place.
It’s always a bit stressful to travel around the holidays: Airports are packed, highways are congested, and flight delays and cancellations can derail even the best-laid plans. For those with dementia — who may have difficulties with memory, thinking, and other cognitive abilities — those environmental stressors can trigger feelings of anxiety, disorientation, and confusion.
Luckily, living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive decline doesn’t mean that an individual has to stop traveling altogether. Here are some tips and tricks for ensuring a safe and comfortable holiday experience — and how travel can even benefit those living with dementia.
Traveling With Dementia Patients
These concerns may impact more people than you think: Currently, more than 55 million people worldwide are living with some form of dementia, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., nearly 6 million people have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
But what special considerations should you keep in mind when traveling with someone who has dementia? Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at Alzheimer’s Association, says that planning ahead is crucial.
“We know that individuals who are living with dementia are still able to participate in travel, whether it’s by car or by air,” she says. “What families need to be able to recognize is that they have to plan ahead in order to make sure that everyone [has] an enjoyable experience.”
Read More: The 4 Main Types of Dementia
How to Fly with Dementia Patients
If you’re traveling by air, Moreno continues, it’s important to consider that airports can potentially cause that person to become agitated or anxious. In more advanced dementia cases, they might wander or get lost.
“We encourage families to look for flight times very early in the morning, just because we know that it’s less chaotic than if you were traveling later in the day,” she says.
Be Mindful of Security
Flying can be particularly stressful for individuals with dementia, says Moreno, especially when going through security.
“We encourage families that, whenever possible, they should be able to share with staff that the individual is living with dementia,” she continues. “They don’t have to tell them what their diagnosis is; it’s just alerting the staff that are there to assist, ‘Hey, I might need a little more time.’”
Avoid Busy Areas
Beyond that, caregivers can try to avoid areas that might be highly congested. That way, they can be able to provide supervision to make sure that person isn’t wandering or getting lost.
“[Some] families will make arrangements to get assistance in getting from one gate to another,” says Moreno. “Because walking that long distance, even physically, may be difficult for the individual. Whether it’s utilizing a wheelchair or a mobile cart, it’s really about leveraging the services that the airport has to offer.”
What About Road Trips?
Meanwhile, if you’re driving, one way to plan ahead would be to look for spots to pull over and rest — or grab a bite to eat — along your route.
“Or not taking really long drives during your road trip,” Moreno says. “Instead of driving 12 hours one day, maybe you’re going to break it up over a longer period of days so it’s only five hours a day.”
“It’s really thinking about what you can do to break up the travel so it doesn’t become an overwhelming experience for the individual with dementia,” she adds.
Should Dementia Patients Travel Alone?
Since many types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, are conditions that worsen over time, not everyone needs such intensive support. In fact, some individuals living with the early stages of the disease may be able to continue traveling on their own.
“There might be some modifications to their travel that they implement, whether it’s traveling early in the morning or not having connecting flights,” says Moreno. “And if there is a connecting flight, making sure they have enough time to get from one gate to another.”
As the disease progresses, however, flights and road trips can become disorienting or stressful for an individual — and, at some point, they may not be able to continue traveling.
“That’s why it’s important for caregivers to understand what some of the challenges are in traveling and how to be able to address those challenges,” says Moreno. “But also recognizing when it may not be appropriate for that individual to travel anymore.”
At that point, it’s also worth considering if you might be able to travel to visit them for the holidays rather than the other way around.
Tips for Preparing to Travel
Here are a few more tips for traveling with a loved one with dementia for the holidays:
Explain your travel plan to the person living with dementia in advance so they know what to expect — but don’t overload them with lots of directions.
Try to stick with what’s familiar. When possible, travel to known destinations that don’t involve too many changes to an individual’s daily routine.
Create a single travel itinerary that includes flight and hotel details for each destination, as well as a list of emergency contacts.
Prepare a bag of essentials that you carry with you that includes your travel itinerary, a change of clothes, medication, water, snacks, and activities.
Allow lots of time to rest. Be careful about overscheduling or overstimulating.
Benefits of Holiday Travel for Dementia Patients
Even with these considerations and challenges, travel may be able to provide real health benefits to those living with dementia.
Improves Cognitive and Sensory Functioning
A team of Australian researchers found that some of the experiences associated with travel — like sightseeing or going out for dinner — can provide cognitive, sensory, and social stimulation, according to a 2022 paper in Progress in Tourism.
For example, scientists suggest that sightseeing can give the brain a mental workout by triggering thinking skills, memory, and concentration.
Boosts Heart Health
Plus, hitting the road for the holidays can involve more walking than usual, benefitting an individual’s fitness and heart health.
“If the individual living with dementia has always enjoyed traveling and visiting with family, you want to be able to keep their daily life as normal as possible,” says Moreno. “It’s okay to continue traveling with that individual to enhance their life as best as you can, for as long as you can.”
Read More: How to Talk to Someone With Dementia