What 's the best way to travel with dementia?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I care for a woman with dementia and for the last three years we fly to Florida for the winter months and back to Michigan for the summer. She is very abusive when she does not want to be somewhere anymore; last spring the airplane ride was the hardest as she kept undoing her seat belt and trying to get off the plane, I am having a hard time figuring out the best way to travel with her, she has a very short attention span. I have tried medications the doctor has recommended, but that still has not helped. Any advice would be great.

Expert Answer

Joanne Koenig Coste is a nationally recognized expert on Alzheimer's care and an outspoken advocate for patient and family care. She is the author of Learning to Speak Alzheimer's. Also, she currently is in private practice as an Alzheimer's family therapist. Ms. Koenig Coste also serves as President of Alzheimer Consulting Associates, implementing state-of-the-art Alzheimer care throughout the United States.

Getting from place to place with a person who is pleasant but cognitively impaired is difficult enough but traveling with an abusive dementia patient has an abundance of added difficulties. The most immediate question would be "When is it no longer a viable option to spend winter months in FL?" For most folks with AD, traveling can actually do more harm than good as it leads to increased frustration and confusion. When this occurs, the patient acts out and becomes extremely difficult to manage as you have already experienced. Trying to deal with these issues logically is to no avail since her reasoning power has been dramatically affected by the disease and you can not rationalize with someone who has lost the ability to be rational.

People in the early stage of the disease have often articulated a feeling of great relief when traveling has been eliminated from their schedule. All say that changing venues is very confusing and the confusion sometimes lasts the duration of the trip. Returning home instills more confusion and those who are able have insisted that being in one familiar environment is the most helpful to their level of function. If these trips between MI and FL can not be halted, I would make the following suggestions hoping that some may be helpful:

  • Alert airline staff to her condition
  • Use a medication to 'take the edge off' and to help her rest during the long trip
  • Have another companion or family member accompany you on the trip
  • Bring something familiar for her to look at or hold while traveling - a photo album is good
  • Audio books are often a great means for calming the distraught AD person. Something simple (religious, humorous, etc) work well and comfortable ear phones help block out other sounds that may be adding to the confusion
  • Special little snacks and familiar 'goodies' help promote positive feelings

I wish you well and reiterate that no longer making these yearly excursions will probably be far more efficacious than the change of scenery will. Bless you for your determination to make this a more positive scenario.