When your loved one receives a diagnosis of dementia, the future may seem uncertain. Dementia is a progressive condition causing loss of memory and function, so you may need to consider some lifestyle changes. For example, if you enjoy traveling, does your loved one's diagnosis mean you can no longer go on vacation? On the other hand, if you do decide to travel, could this worsen dementia?

Key takeaways:
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    Traveling is possible for someone with a diagnosis of dementia in the early stages with careful planning. A family member or friend should always accompany someone traveling with dementia.
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    Traveling can also be therapeutic in the early stages of dementia by providing activities, exercise, and stimulation to the brain.
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    In the later stages of dementia, traveling is generally not advised. Changes in routine and location at this stage can cause anxiety, stress, and responsive behaviors.

Person with dementia – travel or not to travel?

Each person is unique in their disease process and functional abilities, so the decision to continue traveling is also individual. However, a few tips can help you assess if traveling is appropriate, plus some recommendations to help you plan your adventure away if you choose to do so.

First, let us take a look at an example of traveling with dementia.

Real-life example of John and Marjorie

John and Marjorie (not their real names) have traveled to their Florida home every winter to escape Minnesota’s snow and cold. When Marjorie was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, they decided to continue their routine as Marjorie was healthy overall. Besides, they had built a community of supportive friends who were well acquainted with Marjoiries' condition.

One year later, however, all of that changed. Marjorie took the neighbor's bicycle out while John was napping. John was beside himself when he woke to find Marjorie gone. John notified the police, and the community banded together to search for her. A few hours later, neighbors located Marjorie only a few blocks away, walking on the side of the road with no bicycle in sight. Marjorie was a little shaken but physically unharmed. She had gotten lost and did not recall the bike’s location. After the incident, they decided to sell their Florida home and stay in Minnesota year-round.

While John and Marjorie’s story could have resulted in a tragedy, did the travel make Marjorie’s dementia worse? That’s hard to say, as Marjorie functioned well for several years before this incident. Some experts believe that traveling early in dementia can improve well-being and overall mental health. Studies have shown that keeping the mind and body active benefits those with a dementia diagnosis.

Traveling with dementia – what to consider:

Travel may be possible in the early stages of dementia if there is careful planning and consideration.

  • Check with your doctor. Visit your healthcare provider to inquire about traveling for you and your loved one with dementia. They will base their opinion on your loved one’s current stage of cognitive decline, existing medical conditions, and current medications. They may suggest medication to calm anxiety if you consider traveling by air;
  • Medical documents. Make sure you have an electronic and hard copy list of your loved one's current medications and medical history. Your loved one should also consider registering with the Alzheimer’s Association Wandering support, which includes an ID bracelet;
  • Electronic devices. Consider providing your loved one with a cell phone or smartwatch with GPS capabilities in case they become lost. If you are on a long flight or driving, an electronic tablet with your loved one’s favorite movie or game can help pass the time and provide diversional activity;
  • A familiar destination. Traveling to a familiar destination is often ideal and can enhance the experience. A visit to a family’s summer cottage or Florida vacation home can provide a peaceful surrounding and stimulate pleasant memories of past holidays. Because those memories may still be intact in the early to mid stages of dementia, a recall may be a form of reminiscent therapy;
  • Planned activities. You should keep familiar routines for you and your loved one as you would at home, such as having breakfast at the same time or going for that usual morning walk. You may consider adding a new activity if your loved one is in the earlier stages of dementia, such as playing mini golf or going for a peaceful country drive. Consider planning activities in the earlier part of the day or when your loved one is “at their best.” You may choose to avoid later afternoon or early evening activities due to fatigue which may contribute to anxiety. Keep any activities to yourselves or smaller groups of familiar people. An overwhelming or loud atmosphere can increase stress and restlessness. Make sure to plan for rest periods throughout the day;
  • Trial run. If you are unsure if your loved one can take a vacation, you may wish to go on a trial run or a “staycation” at a local hotel to test the waters. You can plan some vacation-type activities, eat at a restaurant for meals, and have a leisurely weekend together.

When not to travel with dementia

In certain situations, traveling with your loved one with dementia is not worth disrupting their lives. Here are five reasons to discourage travel. If travel is an absolute necessity, such as for medical treatment, contact your healthcare provider for direction about possible strategies for your journey.

  • Traveling alone is not usually advisable. This applies for anyone at any stage of dementia. Even in the early stages, unfamiliar environments can escalate anxiety;
  • Later stages of dementia. These are generally not a good time to introduce a new activity or location. New activities or changes in the environment can increase stress in your loved one. Even someone in the middle stage of dementia can have difficulty being introduced to a new activity;
  • Travel may trigger a negative response. This can happen if your loved one already has hallucinations, delusions, wandering, or responsive behaviors. A new surrounding may aggravate any of these existing conditions;
  • Certain medical conditions. These include urinary tract infections or unstable diabetes, may dispose your loved one to complications such as delirium. Even a change of location in the later stages of dementia can trigger a delirium response;
  • Incontinence. Leakage from the bladder or bowel and your ability to deal with any accidents may impede the ability for you to travel with your loved one.

If you conclude that traveling for your loved one is not advisable, consider a respite stay for them at a long-term care home or assisted living facility. This way, your loved one can be cared for while you address your mental and physical health. Another option could be having a family member, friend, or private caregiver stay with your loved one while you go away. Being the primary caregiver of your loved one with dementia is a full-time job, and you will need respite from time to time. Contacting your local Alzheimer’s Association is an excellent place to start so you can have support and direction.

Traveling in the early stages of dementia is possible as long as careful planning takes place. New experiences and exercise may even be therapeutic to increase engagement and improve cognitive function. However, as dementia progresses, the decision to travel may be more complex and could increase complications associated with declining cognition. In this case, travel may not be possible for your loved one. Therefore, always consult your healthcare provider before making travel plans.

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