Navigating travel with someone who has dementia

With the right planning, and proper expectations, Penn Medicine experts say a family vacation can accommodate the needs of individuals with dementia.

While planning for a family vacation is never easy, the added element of accommodating a family member with dementia may seem too daunting for a family to consider. But experts at Penn Medicine say it is doable to take a trip with someone who has dementia, while ensuring their safety, comfort, and enjoyment; it just requires a little more preparation and setting realistic expectations for everyone involved.

Traveling can be an important part of family and group activities for some, and when a family member planning to go has dementia, it can be an overwhelming idea for everyone involved. Alison Lynn, director of social work of the Penn Memory Center at Penn Medicine, shares tips for planning, safety, and expectations.

Back view of family and dog walking together down an empty beach

Lynn notes that any type of disruption to that individual’s daily routine and environment will likely cause some disorientation and that is normal. It may even seem like the symptoms of the disease have progressed, but that is all very common and usually directly associated with the change in routine.

“For example, if a caregiver is thinking of taking that individual abroad, I might suggest first trying to travel domestically to see how the person with dementia does,” Lynn said.

Once a location has been selected, the caregiver and/or family members should look at the easiest and best mode of transportation. Lynn recommends selecting the transportation option which would be most comfortable to the individual (for example, with the fewest stops or layovers on a flight) and that will cause the least amount of anxiety. Lynn also notes that if flying, calling the airline ahead of time to know that someone you are with has a disability can be helpful to expedite security check lines and find out any other helpful tools that the airline can provide.

Additionally, if staying at a hotel, a caregiver can let staff members know of the situation. Many individuals with dementia could potentially wander around out of confusion when looking for a bathroom, bedroom, or another area in the unfamiliar space. Having a plan if that event occurs by knowing who to contact can be extremely helpful. The travel destination should also be in an easily accessible place for emergency health services.

David A. Wolk, co-director of the Penn Memory Center and a professor of neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine, highlights the importance of providing comfort and trying to reorient or redirect if the person with dementia becomes confused or disoriented. According to Wolk, many individuals with dementia will mirror the emotions of the caregiver and/or family member, so if they remain calm, the disoriented individual will most likely stay calm too.

Wolk also suggests that if the individual has a tendency towards anxiety and agitation, it might be beneficial to discuss medicinal options with your physician to help.

“Most families do remarkably well on these trips, as they tend to provide respite, engagement, and fun for both care partners and the individual with dementia,” Wolk says.

“Enjoy the small moments—like talking, joking, and sharing meals,” Wolk says. “These moments are usually the highlights of a trip. These are also the moments that can be easier on those with dementia.”

This story is by Lauren Malecki. Read more at Penn Medicine News.