Picture of Airport SignOur residents’ families often want to bring Mom or Dad home for the holidays, particularly if it’s their first year in memory care. They hope to recreate “happy golden days of yore,” 1 as the carols say, gathering everyone in the clan to reminisce about and relive past celebrations. That means they’ll be traveling with dementia: sometimes by car for hours, occasionally by airplane for an extended stay.

We recommend beginning with a brief trial run, such as a well-planned afternoon outing. (Of course, we offer tips for making the best of a family gathering while coping with Alzheimer’s, too.)

If a short day trip turns out well, you might consider extended travel. A long stay requires far more planning, though. You’ll have to commit to thorough preparation – and perhaps a little soul-searching.

To illustrate, we’ve found four popular tunes to guide you.

They Won’t Know the Way — Do You?

Traveling With Dementia Playlist, Tune #1

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.2

You’ll be the tour director on this excursion, in charge of even the most minor details. That means you’ll have to plot each twist and turn along the way. In addition, you’ll have to develop a backup plan for every step.

Begin with all the questions you can imagine

Getting to the plane
  • Will someone drive you to the airport? If not, how will you park the car?
  • Is Dad likely to get upset at the crowded check-in counter?
  • Is he strong enough to ride up escalators and down long walkways? How will you carry the luggage? Does your airline offer assistance?
  • Have you prepared Dad for security procedures he may find invasive or threatening? What if they catch him off guard or off-balance? Think about whether he’ll be willing to remove his shoes and part with his watch — or stand with arms raised in a full-body scanner, then submit to “frisking” by an electronic wand.
  • Are you eligible for priority boarding or help to your seats? Will the airline guarantee you and Dad seats together on every flight?
On the Plane
  • People with dementia often are sensitive to noise, temperature and other sensations. Can Dad muffle the roar of takeoff by listening to an iPod loaded with his favorite music? Will sipping water before and during takeoff ease any ear pain, or does his doctor have a better suggestion? Can Dad shrug off a mid-flight chill with his favorite sweater or a blanket?
  • Have you checked on the food and beverage service? Are the offerings appropriate for Dad? Do you need to make other arrangements?
General concerns when traveling with dementia
  • Are you prepared for the inevitable overbooking, delay or cancellation? How will you keep yourself and Dad calm when all around you are losing their cool? Can you find peace in an airport lounge?
  • Is your carry-on bag packed with emergency refreshments?
  • How will you handle Dad’s toileting needs? Are your seats close to a bathroom? Are you ready to change continence garments in cramped stalls or restrooms? (By the way, who will sit with Dad while you use the bathroom?)
  • People with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia confuse easily under the best circumstances. Hectic crowds are incredibly disorienting and often frightening. Do you have the patience and temperament to offer gentle reassurance all along the way?

How Helpful is Your Carry-on?

Traveling With Dementia Playlist, Tune #2

Lean on me when you’re not strong,
and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.3

Your hands may be full as you guide Dad through crowds in the concourse, but avoid the temptation to check your bulging carry-on! If properly packed, it’s your safety net during delays or if your baggage is lost. Additionally, once you reach your destination, it allows you to relax and help Dad settle in rather than dash out for supplies.

Plan to carry

  • Anything Dad needs during the first 72 hours of your trip and
  • Anything he’ll need during the journey that you can’t buy after arrival.

At a minimum, your carryon should include

  • ALL medication
  • 2 days’ supply of toiletries
  • 2 changes of clothing, together with continence supplies (Consider more if you’re concerned about spills or accidents.)
  • A favorite sweater or blanket
  • Easily filled water bottle and snacks
  • Something calming to pass the time, e.g., a small album or book filled with photos, a favorite magazine

Ask for Help!

Traveling With Dementia Playlist, Tune #3

I get by with a little help from my friends.
I’m going to try with a little help from my friends.4

While at home, professional caregivers guide Dad through his everyday routine. They work together to prepare nutritious meals he’s both willing and able to eat. These trained aides oversee his bathing, toileting, dressing and grooming. Supervised by nurses, they also administer medications and treat skin tears. They’re always on the alert to prevent falls and other mishaps, too.

Caregiving is a big job, even when handled by a team of professionals working in shifts, relieving each other for rest and recharge.

Who will stand in during Dad’s visit?

How many family members will take turns at Dad’s personal care? Equally important, are they knowledgeable and strong enough to handle the job? Moreover, will Dad let them help? Could you hire professional in-home caregivers to occasionally supplement your team (or give you an evening out at a venue Dad won’t enjoy)?

In an emergency, who will stand in for Dad’s regular doctor? Where are the nearest medical facilities? Is Dad’s doctor or nurse practitioner available to consult by phone?

All in all, traveling with a companion coping with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is exhausting. Have you planned respite care for yourself? Make sure you’re well-rested for the return trip.

Most important, arrange to share unhurried moments with Dad. You’ve worked hard to bring him home, so relax and enjoy his company.

In the Long Run, Will LA Prove Too Much for the Man?

Traveling With Dementia Playlist, Tune #4

He’s leaving
On that midnight train to Georgia,
Said he’s going back
To a simpler place and time.5

Despite all your careful planning, you may conclude that extended travel and a long stay are too much for you to handle. To be honest, they may be more than Dad can handle, too.

While you wanted to take Dad home, he probably wouldn’t feel at home there. He’d be restless and agitated because, after all, your home is not his home.

Few people living with dementia enjoy high adventure

As a matter of fact, most feel comfortable and secure following regular routines in familiar surroundings. They prefer simple pastimes.

So, think of the holiday rituals Dad most enjoyed and share simplified versions with him. Did he climb a ladder every December in order to clip strings of colored bulbs to the gutters? Treat him to a tour of area light displays. Keep your outing brief, whisking him off just after dinner, then returning him home in time for his bedtime ritual.

If Dad loved your mother’s baking, then deliver a batch of favorite cookies. Better yet, bring undecorated sugar cookies, and let him help with the icing and sprinkles.

If music unquestionably was Dad’s passion, find a simple concert he might enjoy: a grandchild’s Christmas pageant – a community concert – carolers at the mall. (Plan for an early exit in the event that he grows tired or restless before the finale.)

Favorite holiday movies on DVD are a real treat, too, especially if you watch with him, applauding his favorite scenes.

Rather than taking Dad home for the holidays, focus on how best to share the festivities you both treasure. Don’t worry about recreating past celebrations. Instead, meet Dad in his present, making new memories in this moment.

Traveling With Dementia Playlist

Title: Denver, John. Leaving on a Jet Plane. Cherry Lane Publishing Company. 1967.

1 Blane, Ralph and Martin, Hugh. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1943. Emi Feist Catalog, Inc. 1944.

2 Child, Lydia Maria. Over the River and Through the Woods (A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day). Women’s History. About.com. Jone Johnson Lewis, editor. http://womenshistory.about.com/od/thanksgiving/a/child_thanks_lg.htm (December 3, 2014)

3 Bill Withers. Lean on Me. Interior Music Incorporated USA. 1972

4 Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul. With a Little Help from my Friends. Northern Songs. 1967.

5 Weatherly, Jim. Midnight Train to Georgia. Universal-PolyGram International Publishing, Inc. 1971.