Alzheimer's / Dementia

12/6/2022 | By Annie Tobey

The year my family traveled with Grandmother Tobey to a holiday gathering was memorable. She was happy to be surrounded by family, from her children to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. At the same time, the unfamiliar surroundings caused occasional confusion, especially at night. Our family would have benefited from these travel tips for Alzheimer’s families.

Travel poses challenges any time of year, and especially at holidays. Families managing a loved one with Alzheimer’s face extra challenges. Even short trips to visit family and friends can be stressful for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia. While not everyone living with Alzheimer’s are able to travel, people living with early- and mid-stage Alzheimer’s often do want to attend family gatherings and holiday celebrations. Careful and thoughtful planning can help ensure safety, comfort, and holiday enjoyment for all.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers these travel tips for Alzheimer’s families, providing for a more calming travel experience for everyone:

Six top travel tips for Alzheimer’s families

1. Consider the best travel options for your family.

Of the ways to get to your destination, which will provide the most comfort and the least anxiety? Consider your loved one’s needs, abilities, safety, and preferences. If the destination requires air travel, the Alzheimer’s Association website offers tips, including:

  • Avoid scheduling flights that require tight connections.
  • Request a wheelchair or motorized cart so that an airport employee is assigned to help you get from place to place. Most airlines ask for at least 48 hours of notice.
  • Pack necessities in a carry-on bag, including medications, medical information, emergency contacts, photocopies of important documents, and snacks.

2. Pick a practical destination.

Consider destinations that have easy access to emergency health services and pharmacies.

Choose lodging that is handicap accessible and will meet other family needs.

My extended family met at a lodge, which offered a gathering place for the entire family, suites with multiple bedrooms so my father and his siblings could be near Grandmother at night, and places where young children could burn excess energy (i.e., be naturally noisy!) without upsetting the elders.

3. Simplify the travel itinerary.

Grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter embracing as they're looking at a photo album. For article on travel tips for Alzheimer's families. Image provided by the Alzheimer's Association - Eastern North Carolina. Photo by Rob Hart.
Photo by Rob Hart, Alzheimer’s Association.

Elaborate sightseeing trips or complicated tours may cause anxiety and confusion. Travel during the time of day that works best for your loved one. For example, if they become tired or more flustered in the late afternoon, avoid traveling at this time.

Also, allow plenty of time for rest and don’t over-schedule. If other family members want to add outings, arrange for responsible caregivers to care for the person with Alzheimer’s while others venture out. This can mean taking turns staying with your loved one. You could also contact a local home care service, but only if your loved one will be comfortable with a stranger in a strange place.

4. Keep travel necessities close.

Keep medications, up-to-date medical information, a list of emergency contacts, and photocopies of important documents where they can be easily accessed. If traveling by air, keep them in your carry-on baggage.

For longer car trips, pack hydration and snacks.

5. Brief your host.

When staying with family or friends, make sure everyone knows what to expect. You can share resources, including these travel tips for Alzheimer’s families as well as other informative resources from the Alzheimer’s Association. At a hotel, inform the staff ahead of time of specific needs so they can be prepared to assist.

6. Be prepared.

Environmental changes or new locations can cause anxiety and agitation in people with Alzheimer’s. These events can also trigger wandering. Monitor your loved one closely for signs of stress or confusion. Keep them close to you in crowded, unfamiliar places. Consider enrolling in a wandering response service.

“The holidays should be a fun and relaxing time for friends and family, including people living with dementia,” says Lisa Roberts, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Eastern North Carolina Chapter. “Keeping your loved one’s needs top of mind for all travel decisions can allow for less stress and confusion and provide a joyous time for all.”

The Tobey family gathering was a win all around. Grandmother got to reconnect with loved ones and meet the youngest littles ones. My father, as a primary local caregiver, had assistance with attending to Grandmother’s needs. And the younger grandkids had the chance to meet the family matriarch, adding warmth and meaning to their storehouse of Tobey family memories.

More travel tips for Alzheimer’s, including for people with dementia traveling alone, are available on the Alzheimer’s Association website. The 24/7 Helpline, at 800-272-3900, provides reliable information and support to all those who need assistance, toll-free anytime, even holidays.

While these travel tips for Alzheimer’s families won’t iron out all the wrinkles (no trip is without its challenges!), packing along plenty of patience and understanding can result in meaningful memories for everyone.

This article was written in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association – Eastern North Carolina Chapter, which offers free education programs and support groups to help North Carolina caregivers and their families on topics like navigating the holidays.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey