Traveling with a person who has dementia can be fun and rewarding…or highly stressful and problematic. The key to success is all in the planning.
First, I recommend a simple day trip to test the waters and see how your loved one reacts to time outside of their familiar environment. Find something in your area to do that involves a sensory experience…music, art/visual experience, enjoyable food/dining experience, etc. Sensory experiences are wonderful for people who have cognitive impairment since it is all about the moment and what is happening in front of them.
For example, I recently took my mother-in-law on an outing from her assisted living home, to the NY Botanical Gardens to view the annual orchid show. As a former gardener and admirer of flowers she enjoyed getting up close to so many varieties of orchids and other flowers, especially the magnificent large displays. We also planned lunch in the café and made sure there were vegetarian options for her. We had to order for her since a large selection is often difficult for people with dementia to choose from.
To make your outing as stress-free as possible, just spend enough time on the preparation: Take along water, snacks, and any personal care supplies that might be needed, and an extra set of clothing. You never know when an accident can occur. Bring along any medications that need to be taken during the time you are away and a full list of all medications in case of an emergency. If mobility is a challenge, plan to bring a transfer/folding wheelchair for longer distances. Many older people have not been walking more than short distances around the home environment and when you go out, you quickly realize endurance is a problem. Using a wheelchair allows you to do more and not limit your activities. Also make sure there is wheelchair access at your destination.
Supervision is imperative, since unfamiliar places can increase confusion and wandering. Make sure someone stays with your family member at all times including the bathroom. Keep track of personal belongings for your family member. If you are staying overnight be very careful about night-time waking and wandering. People have been know to awaken in an unfamiliar place and wander outside looking for their family who might be asleep in the same room or right next door.
If you are considering traveling for a longer multi-day trip, you will need to consider all of the above over a more extended period of time and be aware it can be very draining for family/caregivers who are not used to this. Consider bringing along a trained caregiver who can help with supervision and personal care and give you a break to enjoy some of the trip on your own if you want to.
by Joan Garbow, LCSW, CCM