Question: My husband has Alzheimer’s disease. Is it safe for him to travel?
Answer: This is always a difficult question for me to answer. For some patients with even mild dementia, changing locations can lead to an increase in disorientation and confusion. Caregivers have complained to me that at times, the person with dementia can even become incontinent because they cannot find the bathroom in their hotel room. Perhaps a bigger concern is whether an increase in confusion because of the unfamiliar location and environment will lead to agitation and anxiety. This is a particular problem for air travel, where the person is stuck in a noisy, crowded confusing environment where there is literally no escape for hours.
Unfortunately there are no clear predictors of who is likely to be able to tolerate travel and who will not. For instance, factors such as age, gender, type of dementia, and severity of cognitive impairment, are not particularly helpful, as the response is so individual. I typically inquire about how they have tolerated travel in the past, though given the progressive nature of the illness, even this is not totally reassuring. Sometimes it is worthwhile trying a “trial run” where the patient and the caregiver may stay overnight at friends or family nearby to judge what effect changing environments will have on the person.
I generally encourage families to travel in order to enrich the quality of life for the patient and their caregiver, and at times, travel will be unavoidable. In these instances, it is always useful to have a game plan which could include notifying the travel authorities, ensuring adequate health insurance, having help arranged to get you to the gate, and waiting for you when you arrive. You might speak to your doctor about the availability of medications to help with agitation in the event this is necessary, but there are risks associated with the use of these drugs and they should not be used for the first time if you have no idea how they affect the person with dementia (either positively or negatively).
Finally, given how different the environment will be, you will need to be especially careful about leaving the person with dementia unattended at any time during the trip.