Travel for Alzheimer's Patients

Five Common Trouble Spots During the Holidays
Millions of Americans take to the roadways and to the sky during the holidays to head to relatives’ homes. But for caregivers traveling with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, there tend to be common trouble spots that arise. With a little preparation, you can focus on creating holiday memories rather than unexpected snafus.

Holiday Trouble Spot #1: Flying

  • Realize that even someone with early dementia shouldn't travel alone.
  • Stay together in the airport at all times.
  • Remain calm and don't rush the person in security lines. Some airports offer family-friendly lanes -- they're not just for people traveling with children.
  • Schedule flights early in the day, when the person may be in the best spirits and you're less likely to be marooned overnight in case of bad weather or other delays. It's worth the extra price to fly nonstop. Allow plenty of time for connections.
  • Don't place medication in checked bags. Your carry-on should also contain everything the person would need if luggage is lost or a flight is delayed overnight: pajamas, toiletry items, change of clothing, medical contact information, and legal papers (power of attorney, insurance).
  • Pack snacks and provide water, since dehydration is a risk for seniors. Use the bathroom just before the flight to help avoid the need for the person to do so on the airplane.
  • Bring something for the person to do with his hands: a puzzle book, a photo album, knitting, a textured rubbery ball to hold, playing cards.
  • Carry a blanket and small pillow for comfort's sake, as they may not be available on the flight.

Holiday Trouble Spot #2: Car Trips

  • It's ideal to skip a long journey by car, but when a car trip is necessary, avoid traveling on peak days.
  • Stop often, but stay with the person at gas stations and restaurants . New places invite confusion.
  • Play the person's favorite music in the car, or find a radio station playing holiday classics.
  • If you must stay in a hotel, remain with the person at all times. Get one large room with two beds rather than separate or adjoining rooms.

Holiday Trouble Spot #3: Frenzy at Home

  • Preserve, as much as possible, the person's daily routine regarding times for meals, exercise, activities, and so on.
  • Don't think you have to make the holiday exactly as it always was. Emphasize a few favorite traditions and let go of the rest.
  • Adapt longstanding traditions to the person's present abilities. If Mom always decorated the tree, help her attach ornaments rather than completely taking the job over. If Dad carved the turkey, let him sit in his customary seat but bring the bird to the table already sliced, and let him help fill plates.
  • Keep the person's hands busy while you handle holiday chores. Some ideas: decorating sugar cookies, kneading dough, stirring a pot, sorting through a box of unbreakable ornaments, stringing popcorn or cr anberries, looking at Christmas cards.
  • Safety-proof: Avoid candles (fire hazard), artificial fruit (a choking hazard if mistaken for real), gingerbread houses (if made of inedible items), blinking lights (disorienting), garlands that obscure railings on stairs.
  • Take advantage of the powerful sensory memories of this time of year. Whether it's playing in the background or sung in the form of carols or hymns, holiday music taps into deep emotional memories and usually brings a great deal of pleasure to someone with dementia. Expose the person to familiar holiday smells, such as clove-studded oranges, evergreens, cinnamon, and peppermint.
  • Reminisce by bringing out photo albums or telling old family stories. But don't make it feel like a quiz by asking, "Do you remember…?" Just start the story.

Holiday Trouble Spot #4: Parties

  • Invite small groups to visit the person at home. A few friends at a time may be more manageable -- and therefore more enjoyable -- than one large party.
  • If you're hosting, keep the gathering small. Make it a brunch or luncheon if sundown syndrome is a risk.
  • If you're a caregiver invited to a party, consider having someone stay at home with the person who has dementia rather than bringing her with you. You both may enjoy this arrangement better.
  • Designate someone to stay at the person's side throughout an event to provide a continuous, calming presence and to prevent wandering. Noise and new faces can overwhelm.
  • Introduce those who approach the person with dementia, no matter how close a friend or relative they may be: "And here's your niece, Susan!" Don't draw attention to the fact that they were introduced just ten minutes earlier.
  • Invite the person with Alzheimer's or dementia to join activities such as opening gifts or watching a sports game -- but don't insist that he participate.
  • Withdraw as needed to a quiet corner or room where the person can feel relaxed and safe, away from loud kids or a cocktail-party crowd. Walk outside, weather permitting.
  • Monitor the person's intake of alcohol, as he may not be able to remember and track it himself.
  • Watch for cues that the person has had enough: increased impatience or fretfulness, pulling at clothes, withdrawal. Don't wait until he's overtired.

Holiday Trouble Spot #5: Shopping

  • Avoid shopping just for tradition's sake. A drive to look at holiday lights is less likely to confuse and upset than a visit to a crowded shopping mall.
  • If you shop, do so early in the day when it's less crowded.
  • Visit one store, not a whole mall-full at once. Another reason to avoid malls: The vast parking lots can be disorienting.
  • If you plan on making lots of purchases, it's easy to become distracted, so consider bringing a third person alon g who can stay with and focus on the person who has dementia.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 3 years ago, said...

Please do an article on driving tips, as short distance travel trips are more likely to occur.

about 3 years ago, said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. For those seeking help finding bathrooms, here are some resources to explore: and and Note: is not affiliated with any of these resources, and cannot vouch for accuracy or quality of the information.

about 3 years ago, said...

Need to find family bathrooms when traveling. Husband cannot go in alone. Many Walmarts and a few new oasis stops have them. Sometimes there is a hospital near the highway which are kind of accomadating. Any suggestions are welcome.

about 6 years ago, said...

I always used the wheel-chair toilets in the airports which allowed complete supervision with plenty of room. This facility used both before and after flying.

about 6 years ago, said...

What you dont mention is the fact that the caregiver will need to use the bathroom on trips and they need someone to watch him while you are in the restroom------big problem

about 6 years ago, said...

I'm a nursing home/hospice nurse. I find that most people in early to middle dementia enjoy going out with family. They seem to maintain very well, as long as familiar people are with them. As the dementia increases, and they barely know their own family members, there is no reason to take them out. but until they get so confused, the more fun you can have with them, the better. One woman I know, 96 years old and pleasantly confused, went to a family reunion just until tired. She stayed an hour, told everyone who the old timers were in the album, got tired and family brought her back. she had a wonderful time, being the Grande Dame of the family. As long as they aren't really tired, they'll probably do fine.

about 6 years ago, said...

All the family knows the condition of my DH. Will have a room for the children to play away from the main flow of traffic. Hope everyone will understand.

about 6 years ago, said...

I am caregiver for my DH. We will have a group of 15 for Thanksgiving dinner--3 of which are 4 to 8 years of age. Hoping the children will not be too distracting for him or the noise of people all talking at one time! This is the first time for a family get-to-gather since he was diagnosed with Alz. so hoping everything will come out good. Happy Thanksgiving.

about 6 years ago, said...

My father is showing significant decline in thought processing and increasing forgetfulness, i.e. repeating what he has told me not too long after already telling me, or from day-to -day. Also, when he can't remember what he has done with something, he beligerently and angrily accuses me of ge"getting rid of it, moving it, doing something with it." How do I differentiate "normal aging" vs. Alzheimers? My mother passed away from it (secondarily causing oragn system failures). Right now, I am too close to both situations to have an unbiased assessment. Thank you

about 6 years ago, said...

Good info & tips.

over 6 years ago, said...

The reminder that starting to talk about something myself rather than asking a question sets the conversation up for success -- and in the case of my dad, i realize that it relieves the stress for him of worrying about answering correctly.

about 7 years ago, said...

The common-sense advice which can make a caregiver's experience, as well as the patient's, much easier and more enjoyable.

about 7 years ago, said...

Very good advice. The only thing I'd change is the advice to monitor the person's alcohol intake- in my experience, it's a better idea not to serve alcohol at all to dementia patients. Plain eggnog and "mocktails" are festive and enjoyable for anyone, dementia patients included.