Traveling with Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Other Complex Medical Conditions
Sometimes travel is necessary and sometimes it is just fun. Research is connecting travel with positive psychological benefits, leading more doctors to recommend travel for people with dementia and disabilities. What once was a luxury is now realized as a component of longevity, health, and wellbeing.
As we age, we begin to think in terms of limitations for the benefit of safety. But stopping activities that soothe and energize the soul also comes at a price. Being realistic about our ever-changing minds and bodies is wise at every age, but focusing on our abilities and what we can do helps us see possibilities and starts the process of identifying the resources and supports needed to keep our worlds large and connected. For those with complex conditions, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and disabilities, here are several ways to reimagine and plan for travel that brings comfort, relaxation, and pleasure.
Group Tours vs Private Tours
Tours groups are a popular and affordable way to travel that eliminates do-it-yourself planning. Tours can also mean big groups, long lines, and packed schedules with little flexibility. Ask the tour operator specific questions about walking, accessible bathrooms, and breaks so you can make realistic choices and understand what you need to bring to stay comfortable and safe. Although more expensive, private tours are something to consider for those who want a customized itinerary with easy logistics and planning.
Travel Companions vs Professional Travel Services
Traveling with a competent and knowledgeable companion to help plan, lug bags, and troubleshoot the unexpected ensures that not everything falls on you to manage. It outsources the complexities of travel so you can spend more time enjoying the journey. Soliciting a friend or family member is one way to find a travel companion who may accommodate your abilities. However, dependent on friends or family usually comes with compromises and conditions.
More often people find it beneficial to pay an experienced, professional travel companion who is 100 percent there for them and more experienced in their medical needs. There are fewer compromises, negotiations, and hard feelings. When hiring a travel companion service, ask about their experience to understand how deep their level of support goes. Are they just about executing tasks, or will they provide interpersonal companionship? For a professional travel service, expect to pay a service fee plus travel expenses. For those who need medical treatments while flying, there are add-on service agencies such as Flying Angels who coordinates medical professionals.
Itinerary Planning Tips
When it comes to an easy journey, upfront planning is the key.
- Be realistic about how long you can be away. Longer or multi-destination trips might sound fun, but they also require more planning, packing, and money, shorter trips more accessible and easier to recover from.
- Plan for naps, breaks, and time-outs. Taking it easy on Day 1 ensure you are out and about on Day 2.
- Book direct morning or mid-morning flights. They are more reliable and comfortable.
- Use smaller airports. They are easier to get around and typically less busy.
- Paying for TSA, Clear, or Global Entry greatly minimizes the time and hassle of going through security.
- Consider travel, medical, and/or evacuation insurance.
- Pre-book private ground transpiration to reduce waiting and disruptions.
Travel Disability Rights
Once your itinerary is set, notify everyone of any disability status and accommodation needs. Call the airline to let them know you are traveling with a disability. Airlines are required to provide accommodations under the Air Carrier Access Act, meaning you can get help with wheelchair assistance or a seat assignment, such as an aisle seat with easier access to the bathroom or a window seat for quiet and fewer interruptions. Airport personnel sometimes can help usher you through customs and immigration lines. Call TSA Cares at (855)787-2227 to schedule a Passenger Support Specialist (or ask for a supervisor) to assist you through security, especially at big airports.
Accepted Forms of Alternative Identifications
It’s not uncommon for seniors or someone with dementia to lose their IDs or forget to renew them when expired. But that shouldn’t stop you from making an important trip. If the government-issued ID is missing, have an alternative ID with a photo if possible. A social security card, Medicare card, or a bottle of prescribed pills with a face page from a facility have gotten people through check-in and security. In the event of a lost ID, be polite to the TSA agents and explain the situation. A supervisor may need to step in, and extra security screening may be required. Remember that everyone is there to help.
Packing for Ease and Comfort
When it comes to packing, the benefits of comfort and minimalism outweigh fashion and optionality. With a few tricks, it’s possible to simplify the packing process and avoid checking a bag.
- Choose a few lightweight, mix-and-match outfits with one to two pairs of shoes.
- Attach luggage tags to carry-ons, purses, and backpacks. Put a sticker with your current cell phone number on your ipad.
- Keep medications, plus an extra few days’ worth, with you at all times. Never check medications. Let the screening agent know if you have liquid medications over 3.4 ounces or powders. Bring a seat protector if incontinence is a concern.
- Dress comfortably. Have a jacket or sweater but do not overdress. A microfiber towel works great as a small blanket, bib, or seat protector.
- Medical equipment does not count toward carry-on limits, so bring your own and pack spare parts.
- Noise-canceling headphones, a sleeping mask, a phone with favorite music and shows, a travel pillow, and other special items can be comforting.
Navigating the Airport
Most people agree that navigating the departure airport is the most stressful part of air travel. Here are several ways to create a positive experience.
- Arrive early and take your time. There is no reason to rush so plan a calm, well-paced (slow) departure.
- Use the services available to you, such as curbside check-in, airport volunteers, and wheelchair assistants.
- If flying alone, a caregiver or family member can often get a gate pass from your ticketing airline to accompany you through security to the boarding gate.
- If you have a wheelchair, you may be more comfortable going through screening sitting in the wheelchair.
- Ask airport volunteers if there is a lounge, designated quiet room, or somewhere peaceful to go. Big airports have chapels.
- Use the bathroom before boarding. Companion Care facilities may be available. Some airports are now installing adult changing tables.
- When at the gate, if you have your own wheelchair, get a gate check tag from the desk agent. Use the pre-boarding option.
Here are some valuable resources.
- Book: Travel Well With Dementia by Jan Dougherty
- Article: Making Air Travel Easy for People with Dementia, by Dr. Maria O’Reilly
- Nonprofit Group: Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group (DFAWG)
- Peer Reviewed Journal: Tourism as a Dementia Treatment Based on Positive Psychology, a comprehensive article by Dr. Jun Wen and colleagues published in Oct. 2022.
When deciding to travel, remember to give yourself the authority to create your own comfort and schedule. Freeing yourself from the expectations and dependence on those not attuned to your situation is the difference between a stressful and enjoyable experience. Bon voyage!
About the Author
Carol Giuliani is passionate about supporting seniors in realizing their travel plans. Her company Senior Travel Companion Services, LLC provides customized trip planning and travel escort services for seniors and couples. Her background includes 25 years of experience as a professional fiduciary and over 35 years as a caregiver. Having completed over one hundred trips, Carol is a trusted partner for those who need or want to get clients and family members safely and comfortably to weddings, vacation destinations, and new states and countries. She and Jan Dougherty have created a program to teach and certify others to become professional travel companions. Certified Senior TravALZ Companions, LLP is setting industry standards so those getting into this business get it right. Carol is also a volunteer at DFAWG and writes extensively about how to make travel safe and comfortable for the elderly and people with mental or physical disabilities. Visit SeniorTravelCompanionServices.com to learn more.