LOS ANGELES — How do you travel with someone who has dementia?
No. 1: Learn to count to 10. Slowly. Backward and forward. Several times a day.
No. 2: Bring a companion — preferably someone who has Rule No. 1 down pat.
No. 3: Keep trips as self-contained and well-planned as possible.
No. 4: Choose a single destination and get there ASAP.
No. 5: Brace yourself for awkward moments involving restrooms, especially if your travel companion is other gendered.
I am not an expert and these are not blanket assertions. I know dementia and travel rarely mix, because people with dementia react poorly to any change in location or routine.
But with an estimated 1 in 9 Americans over age 45 reporting "subjective cognitive decline" — a.k.a. memory loss that impairs daily life — dementia is a growing reality for many families, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And sometimes even people with dementia need to travel.
The national Alzheimer's Association reports that more than 11% of Americans age 65 or older have Alzheimer's dementia, a number expected to more than double by 2050. Its website has several tips for traveling, as do AARP and the Family Caregiver Alliance.
To start, these sites recommend two things: Honestly assess your companion's ability to travel, and make sure he or she is carrying or wearing some kind of identification in case you get separated. The sites make it clear that your experience will vary depending on the status of your companion's disease.
I can attest to that. My husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2011, and our travel options have changed dramatically as his disease has advanced. Nonetheless, we have traveled over the last decade by air and auto, beginning in 2013 with a trip to New York and then Europe to see family and friends. It was a kind of farewell tour while my husband could still (sort of) recognize his siblings.
The trip was not without its challenges. In Frankfurt, Germany, a place neither of us had been, we took a stroll to help us adjust to a new time zone. Throughout the walk, my husband insisted that not only had he visited the town in his 20s but had lived there for nearly a year. It wasn't until the next day that I understood he thought we were still in New York. Our six-hour plane ride to Germany hadn't registered.
Eight years and one pandemic later, I no longer consider air travel with my husband. Our last flight was in February 2020 to Washington state for the birth of our grandchild. My husband didn't remember he had children, let alone grandchildren, so he had no interest in the trip. During the three-hour flight, he repeatedly asked the same questions at increasing volume: "Where are we? Why are we doing this? Let's get in the car and go HOME!" Pause. Repeat.
Which brings us to this spring. We were fully vaccinated, places were reopening, and I was itching to do more than share screens with my friends and family in Washington.
Driving was the only option. My husband is anxious anytime he leaves the house and even short car trips agitate him. But my desperation to visit was strong. I figured we could bring our terrier and spaniel to help soothe my husband because they're the only creatures he seems to recognize.
But the logistics were daunting. It's a two-day drive. How would I manage pit stops with the dogs and my husband, who can't use a public restroom alone?
Luckily, a dear friend who manages youth camps offered to accompany us on the drive to Washington and back.
I took full advantage of her easygoing personality, honed by raising four children and overseeing hundreds of little campers. She kept my husband full of snacks, distracted him with stories and music when he became agitated, and took charge of walking the dogs during our stops so I could find a toilet.
Which bring us to, in reverse order, tips on how to handle traveling with someone with dementia: