The most important thing to understand when traveling with someone who has dementia is how much even small routine changes can affect them. You might easily adapt to changing your physical environment, but a person with dementia becomes disoriented easily. This may manifest as confusion, wandering, agitation, and all sorts of behavioral responses.
Remember, to the person with dementia this may be quite a frightful experience. Just imagine you were dropped somewhere unfamiliar with no warning (and maybe in a different time zone with a different language). This is what it can feel like to them. And, that is true even if you prepare them and offer good cueing and reassurance. Without that preparation and some of the tips we will offer below, traveling with someone with dementia can be an awful experience for you both.
As we shared in our post Can a Person with Dementia Travel?, the answer is certainly yes. However, you should make some modifications and accommodations. And, you should be well prepared. Here’s how to set yourselves up for a successful trip.
Tips for Traveling with Someone with Dementia
1. Tailor your trip to be more dementia-friendly.
Try to get direct flights or consider alternative transportation that will be less stressful. Don’t travel at crowded times or to crowded places. Plan extra time for rest and to accommodate changes. Try to schedule travel so as not to disturb the person’s sleep schedule or time routine. Jet lag can be particularly hard on a person with dementia. So, if you need to change time zones, allow for extra time to adjust.
There’s an acronym used in mental health and recovery communities: HALT. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These states make us vulnerable. It is the same for a person with dementia, though the anger and loneliness may be fear and uncertainty. You want to do what you can to be sure the person is always as comfortable as possible, not hungry, thirsty, cold/hot, or overwhelmed.
2. Build in routine and familiarity.
Things will be different when traveling. But, you can create some sense of the familiar. For example, if your loved one with dementia eats the same breakfast every day, make sure they get their usual breakfast on the trip. You can bring along food, go shopping when you arrive, or find the item at the hotel or a nearby restaurant. This can sometimes be an advantage to an Airbnb or rental apartment as you can store and cook food, and also have space to yourselves.
Try to stick to a similar routine to the day, in terms of sleep times, meals, and active times. If your loved one with dementia takes a nap every afternoon, keep that going on the trip. Don’t go from a day that is usually filled with a lot of rest time to trying to do eight hours of sightseeing.
3. Be ultra prepared.
Pack things you might need to make the circumstances more comfortable. Bring layers of clothing for temperature changes. Pack snacks and plenty of fluids (if flying, bring a refillable water bottle or two and/or buy extra drinks once you’ve gone through security).
Bring medications and a copy of the complete medication list. Have all your loved one’s doctors and other vital contact information handy. We recommend you organize and store all of that information and medical history securely online, so you can access it anywhere. Our care managers can help you with that! Bring activities and comfort items (music, games, movies, audiobooks, cards, knitting, blanket, neck pillow, slippers).
Let travel providers know that you will be traveling with a person with dementia. Airlines offer special assistance and can give you advice. They can notify the flight crew so they can assist and be prepared in case you have any issues. It is a good idea to talk to the crew at check in as well (you can even prepare a short note to hand them to make it less awkward). A hotel concierge can be helpful in making suggestions and finding anything you might need. Take out travel insurance also.
Prepare for wandering, even if it hasn’t happened before.
Because of the change in environment, the person with dementia may become more confused and wander off. Unfortunately, many people with dementia start wandering at some point in the disease. Travel and other changes increase the chances this might happen. Keep a close eye on them and communicate clearly what is happening, provide reassurance, etc. Also, do not leave the person alone.
Enroll in a Wandering Support Program, such as this one from MedicAlert and the Alzheimer’s Association. It is a good idea for the person to at least have a medical alert bracelet that has their information and medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s. You can also consider GPS/tracking devices as a safety precaution.
4. Be flexible, know what to watch for and how to handle challenges.
Allow flexibility in your travel. You may not be able to do everything you have planned. If a site is crowded or they are tired, your loved one might begin acting out. Learn to recognize the signs of anxiety, agitation or behavioral changes in the person with dementia. And, have a plan to deal with these concerns.
Download our Dementia Care Guide for a complete guide to dealing with common behaviors related to dementia. Our experts give you pointers and strategies. Even if your loved one doesn’t normally exhibit these dementia behaviors, you may find they do when outside their routine or feeling anxious.
5. Use expert dementia care help.
Bring along a trained dementia specialist travel companion. This can make the travel less stressful for you, allowing you to rest a bit. A trained caregiver can help with physical tasks. But, they can also provide emotional support and extra safety. Ideally, we suggest bringing in a dementia-trained caregiver on a regular basis at home to build a trusted relationship.
You may also want to consult with a care manager to plan a successful travel experience. They can help you get organized and provide personalized tips.
Set up a free consultation to find out more about planning travel or dealing with any other dementia concerns or to get dementia care support.