This article originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of Senior Scope. Article by Seth Thomas. Photo courtesy Unsplash.
If you’re planning to travel with someone who is experiencing memory loss, you may want to add some special considerations into your itinerary.
Kelly McCarthy, Corporate Director of Memory Care with LCB Senior Living and author of “Brass Ring Memoirs,” said that planning should be “person-centered” – in other words, you want to listen to what the person wants and act as a supportive facilitator. This will reduce your travel partner’s anxiety, and ultimately, make the trip run smoothly.
During a recent presentation at the Benjamin D. Cushing Community Center, McCarthy offered several tips to get you on the road.
Know your travel partner:
“When we’re looking at decreasing anxiety, we have to make sure that we look at the person and know where they are cognitively,” said McCarthy.
She recommends familiarizing yourself with the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS), an assessment tool that provides a roadmap for the stages of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, and every person will not have an identical experience. But the GDS provides a rough outline of what people can expect.
The GDS is broken down into seven stages and offers a list of characteristics one might see during each stage. The tool is widely available online.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends speaking with a primary care physician to help you determine what your loved one’s limitations might be.
“There’s one part of the brain that does not decline like the rest. The hippocampus controls logic and reasoning, and that’s losing momentum – but the amygdala isn’t. The amygdala is part of the limbic system that controls our emotions, our excitement,” she said.
This means that, even as the person’s memory becomes foggy, he or she is still able to feel threatened or feel safe. Those with dementia may become anxious in places that are unfamiliar, especially in crowded, noisy public spaces.
This is why McCarthy recommends talking to your travel partner ahead of time.
“You might want to get some buy-in from him about what he wants to do, if you can get that. Even if he forgets, that’s okay. Because what you’ll be doing is triggering his emotions through things that he wants to do,” she said.
Always have a plan B:
One thing you want to avoid is being strict with your plans. If you’re drafting an itinerary, make sure to include a contingency plan.
“You’re on a journey, and he’s driving. You can set up parameters and inspire him through person-centered care, but if he says no, don’t fight that because you’ll never win,” said McCarthy. “If the person doesn’t want to do something, don’t make them do it. Don’t have a preconceived notion of what your trip should be.”
She said that too much stimulation can be triggering, and you should factor in some downtime so that your travel partner can regroup in a place they feel safe.
Try not to overload the person with a lot of directions, either, and make sure your travel partner is leading by saying things like, “Tell me what you would like to do.”
Put support systems in place:
In addition to creating a back-up plan, you can ease your mind by taking certain precautions before setting out on your trip.
“We want to give people the independence they need, but also set up systems to support them,” said McCarthy.
For instance, wandering is a common behavioral symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, but you can plan ahead by making sure your travel partner has an I.D. and a charged cell phone. When selecting a travel destination, you could consider places that have easy access to emergency help.
A “Safe Return” bracelet is another option. The bracelet displays personal medical information and is available through the Alzheimer’s Association.
“If your loved one wanders and becomes lost, EMS (emergency medical services) and police are always looking to identify if someone has a cognitive impairment,” said McCarthy. “If you’re a caregiver, it’s good for you to have a bracelet, as well.”
There’s also a small electronic device called Tile that connects with a smartphone app. The device is frequently used to keep track of keys or wallets, but it can also be used to track someone. McCarthy said the device could easily be stitched into a coat pocket or placed in someone’s purse.
The one downside of using Tile is that it only works if the device is within a certain range of the smartphone that it’s paired with.
Know what tools are available:
There are other tools at your disposal that can ease travel. McCarthy recommends traveling with a “non-pharmacological tote,” which is a box or a tote bag that contains various objects that may provide comfort and support to your travel partner.
Objects could include a weighted blanket, a lavender-scented pillow or a pair of Bluetooth-enabled headphones that can connect with a smartphone. Activities – like conversation cards, jumbo cards or an Etch a Sketch – may help ease anxiety for your travel partner.
“Make sure that you bring something from home that can make them feel comfortable,” said McCarthy.
If you have a smartphone or a tablet, you can download apps ahead of time that your partner may enjoy while traveling. Trivia games or popular video apps, like TED Talks, YouTube or Netflix, can calm and entertain your travel partner. If you are using a video app, though, you may want to ensure that it’s being used while your device is connected to a WiFi hotspot, or it could rack up your phone bill.
And remember, when all else fails, McCarthy said, don’t panic. “You gotta take it as it comes.”
For more information, contact the Alzheimer Association Helpine at 800-272-3900 or online at www.alz.org.
Kelly McCarthy is the author of “Brass Ring Memoirs,” a book that explores caregiving strategies for those caring for a person with dementia. The book is available on Amazon.