According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people are currently living with this debilitating disease and the number is estimated to triple by 2050. Thank goodness mom does not suffer from anything more than mild forgetfulness. However, I’ve heard from several readers who wanted to know if and how they can travel with a parent who has dementia.

From my research, the answer is a solid “maybe” as it really depends on your parents’ ability to handle change (something that is not good for those suffering from dementia). In the early stages, your parent may be fine traveling with you. However, as the disease progresses, travel may become too overwhelming for your parent.

Initial Considerations

Before making travel plans, it’s best to start by talking with your parents’ doctor as they may have insight into their overall ability to handle a trip. Ask the doctor for suggestions to manage any behavioral changes that could occur and if an anti-anxiety medication would be useful during the trip (for your parent, not you).

Changes in environment can trigger wandering in dementia patients so before going, it is strongly advised to equip your parent with a GPS tracking device (companies that offer this service include MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return®, Comfort Zone® or Comfort Zone Check-In®). At a minimum, your parent should have identification on their person (such as a medical alert bracelet) that will allow authorities to get in touch with you should your parent go missing.

Two other critical recommendations from my research:

1. Never, ever leave your parent alone – not even to go to the restroom. Bring your parent with you as it’s not atypical for someone suffering from dementia to forget they are waiting for you and go off on their own.

2. Bring another able adult with you – be it a caregiver or other family member, having a 2nd person to ensure you never, ever leave your parent alone seems to be key when traveling with someone who has dementia.

When evaluating locations, several sites recommended traveling to destinations familiar to your parent before the onset of dementia. Of course that is not always possible, so if you do travel to a new location, understand it’s important to get your parent back on a routine (preferably similar to what they do at home) as quickly as possible when you arrive.

Finally, in all my research, everyone recommended before committing to a vacation together that you actually talk to your parent about the impending trip. If they are severely anxious just talking about it, that may be a sign to leave your parent at home. However, if they are excited for a new adventure, then go for it.

Establishing Expectations for Family Members while on the Road

If you’re traveling with several family members and a parent who has dementia, I highly recommend chatting about roles and responsibilities before finalizing your plans. Just a few of the situations that should be discussed include:

  • Who will help mom or dad pack? This can be particularly stressful for your parent as they may struggle with remembering what to bring. Meanwhile, it won’t help your stress level if when you arrive at your destination, you discover your parent forgot a critical item.
  • When mom and I travel, she absolutely cannot remember to take her pills (even though it’s the same routine for the past 15+ years). Do not expect someone with dementia to be able to do this on their own. Therefore, it is critical before you depart to establish who will ensure your parent takes their medications at the correct time every day.
  • What is the gameplan for the airport? This can be a particularly frightening place for someone with dementia as there is so much going on. Someone needs to stay by your parent’s side even if your sibling is struggling with luggage, trying to corral young children or dealing with whatever else can go wrong at the airport. Figuring out who that will be and then getting everyone to agree that that is this person’s sole responsibility (even if others need help) is critical.
  • Who will help your parent unpack and establish recurring patterns in the new location? What routines are most important for your parent?
  • Who will stay in the room with mom or dad if they need a break or if they decide they do not want to venture out of the room much at all?
  • If you’re sight-seeing and your parent gets agitated, how will you get them back to the hotel quickly and who will go with them?

Overplanning in the beginning will go a long way in ensuring a successful trip for both you and your parent.

Tune in Thursday for Part 2 of Traveling with a Parent who has Dementia where I discuss lodging arrangements, getting to your destination and how to enjoy your vacation once you arrive.