March 15, 2022

Air Travel Tips when Traveling with a Loved One with Dementia

People waiting at the airport

Perhaps you, like me, are emerging out of Covid hungry for the travel that has eluded us these past few years. Care partners supporting a loved one with dementia may especially feel an urgency to travel while they still can. But, with dementia as a constant companion, air travel can be fraught. I continued to fly with my husband until the emotional and physical cost of travel exceeded the benefits. Mostly this looked like him being unable to sit still for long hours, and unwilling to stay in his seat during landing. Safety prevailed, and we stopped flying. Still, during the time that we were still enjoying air travel, I learned a lot through the things I did right, and wrong. Here are some tips that might make your traveling experience more successful. Gratitude here to the members of the Ladies Quilting Club, my dementia support group whose communal wisdom is vast.

Before You Go

If the flight has connections, make sure that you book flights with adequate time to move between gates/terminals. And be sure to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to avoid rushing. Rushing causes anxiety. We want to avoid that.

Know what you are getting into. Prepare ahead by looking at a map of the airport layout and knowing options for moving between terminals and gates.

At the Airport

The Lanyard Program. “Anyone flying with a person with an ‘invisible disability’ should know about the sunflower lanyard program!” says Julie Mosely, an experienced member of the Ladies Quilting Club.

This program, pioneered by Gatwick Airport in Great Britain is being adopted by airports all over the world. Check to see if the airports you are flying into/out of offer this program. The way it works is that the individual potentially requiring extra assistance is issued a brightly colored lanyard festooned with pictures of yellow sunflowers. Optionally a card can be attached providing details about the types of assistance that may prove helpful. Airport and airline staff are trained to recognize that the wearer of the lanyard might require extra assistance and patience.

Take advantage of available wheelchairs. If your loved one is willing, being in a wheelchair will help you avoid ling lines and confusion as you move through security.

Use family restrooms when possible. These can minimize chances of losing a person and they better allow you to offer appropriate assistance as needed.

Pre-write explanations and apologies. Your loved one may do and say things that are irritating or concerning to flight staff and fellow passengers. A little note explaining the situation can go a long way toward improving outcomes.

Have a plan for finding your loved one in a crowd. I lost my husband at the airport when I left to use the restroom and, in my brief absence, he went looking for me. The take aways from 30 minutes of frantic searching and nearly missing our flight are:

  1. If your sweet one carries a cell phone make sure that it is fully charged, that it has a unique ring tone, and that the ringer volume is set on HIGH. You might be able to locate them simply by phoning them. Also, have the Share Location setting turned ON.
  2. If you must leave a person unattended, notify a trusted person that you are doing so; a gate agent for instance. In retrospect I should have simply used a family restroom and taken my husband with me. A good rule of thumb from Jim Costello of the Ladies Quilting Club: “when traveling, stay joined at the hip.”
  3. Ensure that your loved one has on their person some form of readily accessible identification. You can purchase ID bracelets/medallions that are connected to the MedicAlert program that help locate a lost loved one anytime, anywhere.

On Board the Aircraft

Consider using briefs for long flights. Who knew there would be 7 people in line for the airplane restroom? Or that your sweetest would need to use the restroom just as the airplane is in full descent for a landing? ‘Disposable undies’ can be a lifesaver.

Pack along a bag of essentials. Don’t count on buying what you need at the airport or snagging an in-flight snack. And while most airlines these days have in-flight movie options – not all do. Be prepared for delays in the airport as well as on board. Plan ahead and pack along favorite snacks and activities. The essentials bag should also include a complete change of clothing for your loved one and possibly for yourself along with needed medications and water.

Create a buffer between your loved one and fellow passengers. It’s a long flight and nobody wants to sit in the middle seat. But that is likely where you should sit to create a buffer between your loved one and a fellow passenger who might not have your level of patience and compassion.

Allyson Schrier is Zinnia TV’s CEO and a dementia care trainer.

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