Traveling with your Best Friend: Getting the Most Out of Summer Vacation While Caring for a Person with Dementia

By Kimberly Beauchamp

The summertime season holds the promise of family trips and exciting excursions—a time for trips to the beach, camping under the stars, and plenty of sightseeing. But when your loved one has dementia, vacations can seem daunting, perhaps impossible. Will he or she be able to handle traveling, or will the situation be too disorienting? If your loved one can’t travel with you, who will provide care while you are away?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is not out of the question for a person with dementia to handle a trip, particularly if they are in the earlier stages of the disease, when traveling might still be enjoyable. If you deem it is safe and beneficial for your Best Friend to travel with you, you should plan ahead and take precautions to make the vacation as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. Since new, unfamiliar surroundings can trigger wandering in a person with dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests registering the person with the Medic Alert + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program, a nationwide wanderer’s safety program that assists in the safe and timely return of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias who wander, become lost, or have a medical emergency. For a $62 fee, care partners receive identification and a live 24-hour emergency response service for their loved one. You should also be sure to pack all necessary medications and up-to-date medical records and have a comfortable change of clothes, snacks, water, and soothing activities on hand. If you will be navigating the airport or staying in a hotel, it is helpful to notify staff ahead of time that you are traveling with someone with dementia so they can assist you with any specific needs you may have (Traveling with Dementia, http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-and-traveling.asp.)

When deciding where to travel, consider well-loved destinations that are familiar to the person with dementia—perhaps a picnic in a favorite childhood park, or a walk on a local beach. Be realistic and flexible—instead of having to navigate an airport and hop on a plane, you might plan day trips just a short drive away so as to provide the least hassle and disruption of routine. In A Dignified Life: The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care, Bell and Troxel assert that “simple things are often the best things in Alzheimer’s care.” You can turn even the simplest, smallest excursions into an adventure without having to go far from home. If travel is too overwhelming for your loved one, consider reminiscing about past family vacations. Reminiscing is a powerful activity for a person with dementia, outlined in A Dignified Life as an essential activity in improving memory and reminding a person of his or her life story. Bring out pictures of a family trip to the ocean and let the memories transport you back to that day in the sun without having to even leave the house.

Perhaps you are planning an extended vacation and it is too disorienting for your loved one with dementia to accompany you. You need not necessarily cancel your trip—don’t be afraid to reach out to other trusted family members and friends to help you with caregiving while you are away. Many assisted living facilities and long-term care facilities also offer temporary respite care for people with dementia(be sure to research local programs and facilities ahead of time—reservations are most likely required.) Remember that self-care is a very important part of being a Best Friend—if you need a vacation to feel refreshed and renewed, you need not feel guilty about traveling as long as you consider your Best Friend’s needs and wants with compassion. In order for you to find the best kind of temporary care for your loved one, the Alzheimer’s Association has provided a checklist (p.12) of important considerations and questions for in-home aides, adult day centers, and residential respite programs, so that you can evaluate which option is most optimal for your Best Friend.

With careful planning and a little creativity, you and your Best Friend can still enjoy all that a vacation has to offer. Just have an open mind and see where the summer takes you!

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