Traveling has a myriad of benefits, from better creativity to less anxiety and stress. Those advantages don’t vanish as one ages, which is why the senior in your life has discussed traveling so much lately.
However, they now have dementia, and you wonder if it’s safe or smart for them to travel. Is it?
It can be safe for dementia patients to travel if they don’t have these symptoms:
- Severe fall risk
- Frequent outbursts
- Inappropriate behavior
- Inability to handle longer outings
- Frequent confusion exacerbated by unfamiliar surroundings
This guide will answer all your most pertinent questions on dementia and traveling, from the benefits of traveling for dementia patients, to how to travel with a person who has dementia, to whether traveling or flying on a plane can worsen their symptoms.
Let’s get started.
Is Travel Good for Dementia Patients?
We touched on a few of the perks of traveling in the intro. Some other benefits include increasing physical health, exposing oneself to unique cultures, and feeling happier.
Of course, you want those things for the dementia patient in your life.
However, you recognize the other side of the coin as well.
For instance, sometimes, their behavior becomes unpredictable when put in new situations.
For that reason, you ponder whether traveling is ideal for them.
Dementia patients can travel, but they should be in the earlier stages of this disease when they do.
Even by the middle dementia stages, a patient’s condition might deteriorate to such a point that determining if it’s appropriate for them to travel should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Later in this article, we’ll dive deeper into when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia should stop traveling.
For now, here are some questions you can ask to gauge their readiness:
- Do you have support for the person while you’re vacationing, or will you take care of them by yourself?
- Where do you want to travel?
- How long will it take you to reach your destination?
- How are you traveling?
- How does the person react to crowds? What about loud noises?
- Is this trip truly worth it?
At the end of the day, if you decide it’s not the wisest idea to travel with your loved one, that doesn’t mean neither of you gets a break from your day-to-day responsibilities.
A staycation can be just as advantageous for one’s health.
You can skip the stress of airlines, the crowds that gather in busy vacation destinations, and the jetlag. You can also save a lot of money!
How to Travel with Someone with Dementia
Here are some ways to make it as easy as possible for you to travel with a loved one who has dementia, so both of you have a wonderful time:
Keep a Consistent Routine: People with dementia do best when they have consistency. Sticking to their usual schedule can provide a sense of familiarity and calm amidst the travel chaos.
Try to mirror their daily routine – from meal times to sleep schedules. It’s a bit like giving them a home away from home.
Bring Comfort Items: Think of your favorite blanket or that special coffee mug you can’t start your day without.
Comfort items are like little pieces of home that you can bring along. For someone with dementia, these can be even more valuable.
These items can be anything from a cherished photo album to a favorite sweater, something that brings a sense of security and peace.
If you use aromatherapy to help your loved one, consider bringing the oils and diffusers along with you, as well.
Plan for Rest Stops: You know that feeling when you’ve been on the road too long and you start getting cranky? It’s ten times worse for someone dealing with dementia.
Build in rest stops and quiet periods to your travel plans.
Like the intermission at a Broadway show, it gives everyone a chance to regroup and recharge.
Choose Familiar Destinations: Familiar destinations can bring comfort to someone with dementia.
The known environment can help trigger happy memories and provide a comforting familiarity.
Prepare an ID Bracelet: Imagine getting lost in a music festival, your phone’s dead, and you can’t find your friends. Scary, right?
Now, imagine that you can’t remember important information about yourself.
That’s why an ID bracelet is crucial. It’s a simple precautionary step that can provide important details if the person you’re traveling with becomes disoriented or lost.
Keep Important Documents Handy: Keep all important documents, like medical records and emergency contacts, within easy reach.
If you’re flying, pack them in a carry-on, not your checked suitcase, in case it gets lost.
Have a Flexible Itinerary: When traveling with someone with dementia, be prepared to adjust your plans as needed. It’s all about making the journey as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.
Plan for Longer Travel Times: Likewise, it’s best to give yourselves plenty of time. This way, you can navigate through airports or rest stops at a comfortable pace.
Speak with Their Doctor: The doctor can provide valuable insights about medications, coping strategies, and any necessary precautions.
Before you set out on your journey, make sure to have a chat with your loved one’s healthcare provider.
They can give you personalized advice to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for everyone involved.
Opt for Direct Flights or Shorter Routes: To keep stress levels low, opt for direct flights or shorter routes when possible. This way, you can make the journey as straightforward and comfortable as possible.
Make Use of Travel Services: Many airlines, train stations, and bus companies offer services to assist individuals with special needs. It’s like having an extra pair of hands to help you along the way.
Take a Realistic Look at Your Loved One’s Ability to Travel: Before you start planning that grand trip with your loved one who’s been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, you must really take the time to consider it carefully.
Just like you’d consider the practicalities before committing to, say, a rescue dog, or a new fitness routine, it’s crucial to give this some deep thought.
In this case, you’re not just the co-pilot, but also the GPS, the pit crew, and the driver, all rolled into one. Can you handle that?
Now, let’s think about your loved one’s symptoms.
Do they often get confused, tend to wander, or become easily agitated? Do they need to keep busy to stay calm?
If these challenges are part of your daily life at home, imagine them amplified in a brand new environment. They could potentially intensify when on the road.
It could turn what should be a fun getaway into a stressful, maybe even risky, situation.
So take some time to weigh it all up, and make sure any travel plans will be enjoyable for both of you, rather than an added source of stress.
Does Traveling Make Dementia Worse?
Even if you agree to travel with a dementia patient, you can’t help but worry that the vacation will worsen their symptoms.
That depends on how advanced their condition is and how anxious traveling makes them.
A 2022 publication of the journal Tourism Management reports that traveling in the early stages of dementia might improve a patient’s mental health and wellbeing.
This makes sense considering the wealth of data that exists that purports that the more active a dementia patient is (both physically and mentally), the better off their symptoms.
They will still experience a cognitive and physical decline as they move through the stages of the disease, but possibly at a slower rate.
However, anxiety has been proven to worsen dementia, impacting a patient’s ability to make decisions, organize, plan, and pay attention.
They could still be anxious about many elements even if they’re looking forward to a trip.
If the anxiety doesn’t arise before the trip, it could while traveling.
For instance, the person might be calm the day before, but as soon as you change their schedule, such as requesting they wake up earlier, they might fly into a panic.
If not then, perhaps it happens when you arrive at the airport, and they see how crowded it is, or when you strike out on your daily travel itinerary.
Therefore, the possibility does exist that a person’s symptoms can worsen if they travel.
There’s no way to reverse the dementia to the stage it was pre-travel, which is a risk you must be willing to accept.
Can Flying Affect Dementia Patients?
Although it wasn’t easy, your loved one made it through the airport check-in and has now boarded the plane with you.
As the pilot announces takeoff and the plane lifts into the sky, you hope the flight will not adversely affect your loved one.
Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that it may.
According to a November 2022 article from American Family Physician, “Flying may be deliriogenic because of pressure changes, noise, humidity, and time shifts. For long flights, anticholinergic medications prescribed in anticipation of incontinence may worsen cognition or precipitate delirium.”
Speaking of delirium, a 2017 publication of BJPsych Bulletin discussed delirium ahead of a flight due to reduced oxygen.
The report says that “In fit people this can cause tachycardia, tachypnoea, headaches, dizziness, impaired coordination, fatigue and confusion. Reduced air pressure can also cause peripheral oedema and expansion of any air-filled spaces such as the bowel, sinuses and middle ear.”
The report goes on to mention that those with dementia should not fly, and that if they must, they should get a seat nearer the front of the plane. The rate of oxygen saturation is higher there.
Patients are also advised to move around if possible and stay hydrated.
When Should You Stop Traveling With Dementia?
Earlier, we posed several questions to contemplate whether it’s wise for someone with dementia to travel.
Now, we want to dig deeper into that, assessing situations in which a dementia patient should not travel.
Severe Fall Risk
Many scenarios can cause a dementia patient to fall, even if they’re usually able-footed.
The anxiety and stress of travel can make them unsteady on their feet, as can taking certain medications.
A history of falls can indicate possible future instances of falls. The CDC notes that a senior’s risk of falling again doubles after it happens once.
The high pace of travel may make it too dangerous to vacation with someone with a high risk of falls.
A loss of bladder control is embarrassing enough within the confines of one’s home.
Once a dementia patient with incontinence ventures out into the world, they risk a far more humiliating scenario.
They can forget to go in all the hustle and bustle of travel until it’s too late. Maybe they can’t find a bathroom, or there’s a long line, and they can’t hold it.
Occasional incontinence doesn’t have to prevent someone from traveling, nor does incontinence that’s under control through medication.
However, those with newly diagnosed incontinence should reconsider traveling.
It’s terrifying enough to lose a dementia patient when they’re in your neighborhood.
The loss is even more horrifying when you’re in a different state or a different country.
You don’t know the area well enough to guess where they might have wandered off to, and you won’t have other family, friends, or neighbors to help you search.
You’ll have to rely on the police to find your loved one. The stress of losing them can quickly turn what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation into a nightmare.
What’s worse is they could get up and wander at night, leaving you on edge and with little rest the entire time until you go home.
If the dementia patient in your life frequently wanders, avoid all the above stress and don’t travel.
No one wants to cause a scene in public, but if your loved one begins shouting, screaming, or crying, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Consider how well they do when exposed to new stimuli or changes in routine.
If it often ends in agitation, you shouldn’t travel.
That will only worsen their outbursts, which will ruin the vacation for both of you, especially if they have challenges with calming down.
Has your loved one ever become physically aggressive? What triggers it?
If it’s changes in routine or stress, traveling is also a poorly thought-out idea.
Verbal and physical aggression can do more than capture everyone’s attention in a crowded environment. Some people may call the police.
Then you’d have to discuss with them what happened and diffuse the matter.
Likewise, if your loved one behaves inappropriately as their dementia has worsened, a staycation is best.
Examples of inappropriate behavior include paranoid and delusional actions.
Inability To Handle Longer Outings
How long of an outing can the dementia patient in your life handle now?
If they can barely tolerate an afternoon of running errands, spending even a long weekend on vacation will not be as enjoyable as you envision.
Frequent Confusion Exacerbated By Unfamiliar Surroundings
Popular travel destinations often have loud and busy environments.
Unlike the environment at home, you have no control over volume levels or the number of people.
If these kinds of conditions cause someone with dementia to become anxious or upset, you can either travel during the off-season or not at all.
Early-stage dementia patients can often safely travel. However, those with more advanced dementia should strongly reconsider.
Everything from planning an itinerary to packing, traveling, and vacationing can potentially worsen their symptoms due to the changes in environment and routine, the large crowds, the loud noises, and other stimuli.
If you’re still debating whether it’s safe and smart for a dementia patient to travel, don’t be afraid to ask their doctor!