What travelers should consider when Alzheimer’s is in the picture

(Reuben Munoz)

We’re not yet past Labor Day, but it’s already time to start thinking about traveling for the year-end holidays. If you’ve done it before, you can envision the hassle of getting there when it may seem as though half the world is going too, never mind the expense. If you’re traveling with someone who suffers from memory loss, there’s an even greater price to pay. Can such a trip be undertaken? And if it can, should it?

About 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s, half a million of them in California, two-thirds of them women, according to the Alzheimer’s Assn.

The obstacles to travel for people with dementia and thinking problems (which is a larger group than just people with Alzheimer’s) are considerable. A trip may be doable but requires the caregiver to do lots of planning, said Jan Dougherty, family and community services director for Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix.

People with memory issues “can’t manage time and time relationships,” which is key to much of travel, she said. Routine, which is helpful in managing such an illness, is disrupted. And fatigue is exacerbated because, even under the best circumstances, travel can be tiring.


Do the risks outweigh the rewards? The answer depends a bit on the caregiver, on “how well that person is coping with the disease,” said Dr. Sam Gandy, professor of neurology and psychiatry and associate director of Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. If the caregiver isn’t coping well, “I wouldn’t stress them out by having them be responsible for a loved one who is impaired.”

Among the problems to address ahead of time and issues to consider:

•Understanding that the impaired person needs quiet time, Dougherty said. Family gatherings can be overwhelming (at least mine can) so getting away to regroup is imperative.

•Finding a support network at the destination, Gandy said, in case problems arise. Besides family, this might include healthcare professionals. Resources can be found through If the person has “a history of anxiety or disorientation those are … two things that feed on each other…[and can] spiral into catastrophic situation.” If that happens, having help at hand can be a lifesaver.


•Making sure that travel is planned at the optimal time for the person with the memory issue, not at the time that offers, say, the best airfare, Dougherty said. If the person is at his or her best at 10 a.m., that’s a good time to go.

•Anticipating issues with wandering. Not all people with memory issues do this, but this can present enormous and frightening issues for those upset by unfamiliar surroundings. Dougherty mentioned one caregiver who excused herself to use the restroom. When she returned, her mate was gone. He had boarded the flight, but she didn’t know that and stayed behind to search for him. (They were eventually reunited at the destination.) Gandy suggests shoes that contain a GPS device or using another tracking device.

•Keeping the person distracted on a long car or plane trip with favorite foods, drink or picture books or music — or some combination, Dougherty said.

•Helping others understand that this person has a disorienting illness that can be confounding to him or her and perplexing to those who don’t live with it. Dougherty suggested having cards that say, “My travel companion has memory issues. Your patience is appreciated.” Gandy suggested briefing family and friends about the person’s condition.


•Considering whether the trip is too much. Gandy suggested connecting with family through Skype or other applications or devices that let you see the event; Dougherty suggested finding a substitute caregiver or respite relief to stay with your loved one while you go to the event.

There are many more issues to consider, and each situation depends on the individual’s condition. Consulting with a doctor is not just important, it’s imperative. That way, if adult children who don’t understand the severity of the situation pressure a parent, a healthcare professional’s input can make the difference in embarking on a trip that will bring only pain, not the pleasure it should.

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