Do you recall the 1950’s Chevrolet commercial sung by actor and singer Dinah Shore? I‘m dating myself, but I do. The ad began: “See the USA in your Chevrolet. America is asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet through the USA. America’s the greatest land of all.” Yes, the ad romanticizes auto travel. But what do you do as a caregiver if your loved one living with dementia is afraid to travel by car or becomes anxious at the thought of leaving home?
Caregivers often have to face a variety of such challenges. Travel, especially to new places can be exciting, but the novelty of unfamiliar places, interaction with strangers, and the disruption of daily patterns and routines may lead to confusion on the part of persons living with dementia. Confusion and disorientation cause distress that might result in potentially disruptive behaviors or even trigger wandering.
Please don’t misunderstand. Many people living with dementia find travel fun. This month I followed the recent excursion via Facebook of one of my favorite bloggers, Harry Urban. He and his family make plans annually to vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, VA. Harry looked forward to this trip and even made videos of it, posting clips on his Facebook page. You can see the sheer delight in his face as he strolls through this historical town! Harry was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about thirteen years ago.
If you are planning to travel a long distance with your loved one, you may want to ask their doctor if they are at a stage where they can tolerate all the stresses of such a trip. The California Central Chapter of Alzheimer’s Association recommends, “As a rule of thumb, (persons in) stages six and seven are too advanced and vulnerable and should not travel. NO person with dementia should ever travel unaccompanied. There are too many decisions to make, directions to follow, unfamiliar surroundings to navigate.”
Hopefully the suggestions I offer here will be helpful and generic enough, whether you and your loved one will travel by car, taxi, bus, plane, ship, or train. Some of these tips are based on my own experiences traveling with my mother who had dementia.
Advance Preparation and Precautions
I can’t stress enough how important it is to plan all the possible details of any trip in advance. Anticipating the needs of your loved one, preparing them, and helping them stay calm and occupied while in transit, can go a long way in making for an enjoyable trip.
If you’ve noticed that your loved one gets anxious about the thought of even getting into a car, perhaps they were in an accident in the past or got lost while driving. Perhaps these memories resurface when they think about traveling. If it’s possible, at an opportune time, ask if they can help you understand what it is that they fear might happen? Is there something specific that brings them discomfort; e.g., the destination, the time of day, the length of the outing? If they can’t answer and don’t remember, don’t force the issue. Perhaps there is another family member who can recount an issue from the past.
Make sure your vehicle is in tip top shape if you are driving. Even a trip to the nearby doctor’s office could be ruined if your car runs out of gas, breaks down, or a tire goes flat. Keep an emergency kit in the trunk. Take comfort items along, like a neck pillow, favorite soft blanket, sweater, snacks, water, continence care items, extra set of clothes. For longer trips, don’t forget to take medications that they require. Keep in mind that persons with dementia are more sensitive to tiredness, discomfort, and hunger.
If you are flying, use a travel agent who can help you with details and notify the airlines about your situation. Minimize layovers and length of the trip. Reserve a wheelchair to help navigate going through TSA security screening and getting to the gate. Also note that beginning January 22, 2018, certain state ID cards will no longer be enough to board a domestic flight. You may need passports. The Alzheimer’s Association has a document devoted to travel safety, including travel by air. You can download it at the link below this article.
The Day of the Trip
Give yourself enough time to prepare your loved one. Factor in time to use the bathroom, dress or change clothes, grab a snack, put on a sweater or coat. Feeling rushed may make you and them anxious and frustrated, especially if you think you’ll be running late for an appointment. The calmer you are, the better.
Your loved one may be at the stage where they have forgotten how to get into the car. This can cause them anxiety. Try to let them do as much as they can for themselves while you guide them. (See below for the link to Teepa Snow’s video for helpful tips.)
Ensure that their seatbelt is securely fastened. Some organizations recommend that your loved one sit in the back passenger side seat for safety purposes while you drive and that you use the child safety door locks. Many also recommend that you bring along a travel companion. I think you need to be the best judge of this. You don’t, however, want to risk that they become frightened and try to get out by opening the car door while the vehicle is in motion. Pull over as soon as possible to a safe spot and try to calm them if they become agitated.
If your loved one becomes upset during the ride about where you’re going and why, simply accept what they say. Don’t argue. Appeasing them is in the best interest for safety sake. You might simply say that you are taking a different route because you want to avoid a traffic jam. Play soothing music on the radio or bring a favorite CD of theirs and encourage them to sing along.
Keep a Travel Journal
If you need to do a lot of travel with your loved one, keeping a travel journal to record details of both good and bad trips can be helpful. You will need, at times, to be creative and patient. Have a backup plan.
There may come a time when your loved one can no longer tolerate the stress of travel. Be sensitive to this. When this happens, sharing photos and videos of past trips may still bring them pleasure and joy. Happy trails!
I wish you peace, joy, patience, and compassion in your caregiving today and every day!
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To hear Dinah Shore singing the famous 1950’s Chevrolet ad song, just click here: https://youtu.be/iK43-ERSwwM.
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Here is the link for the Alzheimer’s Association sheet on travel safety: https://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_travelsafety.pdf.
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Marie Villeza, of ElderImpact.com, shared a wonderful resource with me. This article is from an auto dealer, Lagrange Country Dodge. I used it as a basis for my article. Thank you, Marie! To read it, go here: http://www.lagrangecountrydodge.com/blog/2017/april/4/the-caregiver-s-guide-to-car-travel-with-your-loved-one-with-alzheimer-s.htm.
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This nine-minute video by dementia-care education specialist, Teepa Snow, offers caregivers tips for helping their loved ones get in and out of a car: https://youtu.be/te4SW_0Af8k.
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Lori La Bey, radio host and founder of the “Alzheimer’s Speaks” website, has coordinated a special team for a one-of-a-kind “Cruise of Hope, November 11 -18, 2017. This Eastern Caribbean cruise leaves from the port of Ft. Lauderdale. It is designed for persons diagnosed with early to mid-dementia and their care partners. Cabins are booking quickly. For information, go to: https://alzheimersspeaks.com/cruise-with-us.