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Can You Travel Safely with a Loved One Who has Alzheimer’s Disease?

The holiday season is upon us, and you may be thinking of traveling with your loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia to visit family. Good news: The onset of these diseases doesn’t mean that family members can’t take the person affected on a trip.

But it does mean that everything has to be considered with great care, from what to pack, where to go, and what you do when you get there, says Dr. Nora O’Brien, Executive Director of Willow Gardens Memory Care at United Hebrew of New Rochelle, Westchester’s first non-profit assisted living facility devoted exclusively to residents with memory impairment.

“Caregivers may need to manage unexpected behaviors and stressful situations,” says Dr. O’Brien, who also serves as executive director of Willow Towers Assisted Living on United Hebrew’s campus. “But with a little patience, and flexibility, it can be done, and it can be worth the effort. A vacation may trigger memories and positive emotions for an individual with memory loss.”

She offers the following tips for traveling with a person affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia:

Planning is key: Travel with someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia is possible, with careful planning. Caregivers may need to manage unexpected behaviors and stressful situations.

Choose your destination carefully: A trans-Atlantic flight and two weeks in European locations your loved one has never visited would be more challenging than a long weekend spent at a destination you can drive to. At Willow Gardens, we plan activities for our residents that they enjoyed previously, and similarly, a vacation may trigger memories and positive emotions for an individual with memory loss.

Keep important documents together for your loved one: Make sure your loved one has documents on him or her at all times in a pocket or travel pouch with any appropriate medical information, your itinerary and contact information for you and a second contact. Keep an extra copy for yourself and also bring a recent photograph of your loved one, or take a shot with your phone, to show people in case your loved one wanders off and needs to be located.

Bring comfort items: When residents move into our memory care facilities, we encourage families to bring comforting items from home. Similarly, a pillow, blanket, digital music device and headphones, photo album, even trinkets that are familiar to the person can help ease agitation and anxiety caused by being in an unfamiliar environment on vacation.

Try to maintain a routine: Whenever possible, follow the routine that the person has at home, for example, mealtimes and bedtime. Consider eating at chain restaurants that they are familiar with.

Designate a backup caregiver: Make sure your loved one is attended 100% of the time, even if that means bringing along a second caregiver. Have a backup plan and be prepared to end the trip early if it becomes necessary.

Plan soothing activities: If the family vacation includes visiting an amusement park, consider bringing your loved one to a museum while the rest of the family rides rollercoasters. Consider the noise level and sensory stimulation of whatever you have planned and how it might affect your loved one.