Traveling via airplane is usually cause for excitement. However, when a passenger is dealing with dementia, excitement can quickly become overwhelming. Today, more and more individuals are finding that air travel is necessary, despite (and sometimes even because of) attendant health conditions that could complicate travel. Here’s a closer look at air travel with dementia to help you plan ahead and make the process go more smoothly:
A New Generation of Travelers
Air travel has evolved tremendously since its inception 70 years ago when only the affluent could afford to fly and even donned formal attire for the occasion. Today, over 80% of Americans have flown at least once in their lifetime as air travel has become increasingly more affordable and practical. Thanks to improvements and variety in travel options and providers, Americans are becoming more mobile in general. Careers, family, and other opportunities tend to move people away from their home town. Because of this, a majority of adult children no longer live in close proximity to parents.
As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, we will continue to see a gradual increase in those who require assistance. Adult children of this generation have sometimes been referred to as the “sandwich generation,” as they occupy dual caretaker roles; taking care of aging parents and their own children simultaneously. As many of these “sandwich-gens” find themselves faced with the task of relocating an elderly parent, many realize the difficulty in knowing how best to proceed.
Deciding Between Ground or Air Travel
In these types of situations, adult children often make the decision to move an elderly parent closer to assist with their care. When that move involves a need to travel long distance, there are a lot of factors to consider. For persons who have been diagnosed with mid to late-stages of dementia, flying on a commercial airplane is the quickest option, but may not seem like the easiest. Driving cross-country, on the other hand, makes us feel more like we’re in control. We don’t have to worry about considerations like airport security and disturbing other passengers. However, the longer the road trip gets, the more complicated it can be. Multiple bathroom stops, overnight motel stays and roadside diners are neither simple nor fun when traveling with someone who has any form of dementia. For most people in this situation, air travel is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity.
The How-Tos of Air Travel
Note: This is not an all-inclusive list and is meant only as a guide. It is highly recommended that when traveling with a person with extreme behavioral issues or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia, a professional company should be consulted. This information is not meant to replace medical advice.
So what if you decide that air travel is the best option for your loved one with dementia? What do you do now? Fortunately, there are numerous resources available that can assist with the process. It can be done; it just takes a little forethought. The following steps guide families who are suddenly tasked with relocation that requires air travel:
1: Identify if assistance is warranted for the person you are trying to transport.
- Has the person had a recent assessment performed by a qualified medical professional to adequately evaluate their ability to care for themselves? Or, has the person been officially diagnosed with a type of dementia by a medical professional? If so, do they have the ability to care for themselves? If not, see step #4.
2: Identify what type of assistance is needed.
- Does the person require mobility assistance or assistance with activities of daily living such as lift assistance, feeding, toileting, or medication administration? If you answered “yes”, are you comfortable with performing these tasks safely? If you answered “no” then assistance is recommended for air travel.
- Does the person have dementia-related behaviors? If the answer is “yes”, are they currently under a physicians care and taking prescription medications to help reduce anxiety, depression, or aggressive behavior? Are you able to assist with the administration of these medications? If you answered “no” then assistance is recommended for air travel.
3: Determine if special equipment is required.
- Does the person require the use of a walker or wheelchair? If you answered “yes”, make sure to contact the disabilities department with the individual airline company to let them know wheel chair assistance is required.
- Does the person require the use of supplemental oxygen or require the use of a portable oxygen concentrator (POC)? If you answered “yes”, be sure to fill out a copy of the airline specific Physician’s Consent Form located on the chosen airlines’ website. This form must be completed and signed by the passenger and passenger’s physician and carried with you. In some cases, such as for international travel, prior approval must be obtained a minimum of 72 hours in advance. Check with the individual airline requirements to verify the approval process.
4: Identify whether you are capable of assisting this person yourself.
- How familiar are you with the person you are trying to assist?
- Have you recently spent time with this person? Do they recognize you?
- How familiar are you with where they are in the disease process?
- Do you feel comfortable dealing with symptom management if the need arises?
- If you are unfamiliar to the person or you are uncomfortable with handling dementia symptoms that could make your loved one upset or confused, consider utilizing a medical escort company with specialized dementia training.
Tips to Ensure a Successful Trip
There is always a risk that dementia behaviors will surface when a person is taken out of a familiar environment and placed in an unfamiliar environment. Airports and airplanes are crowded, noisy places. It’s very possible that the person will not adapt well to the external stimuli. Proper preparation is essential.
If you have decided to travel with your loved one without consulting a medical escort company, the following tips may help ensure a more successful trip:
- Keep essentials in a carry-on. This includes medications, at least one change of clothes, body wipes, and dementia-friendly activities. All medications must be kept in their original labeled, prescription bottles. For liquid medications and feeding/nutrition supplementation, refer to current TSA requirements for liquid portability.
- Create an itinerary. It is helpful to have all of your flight and contact information on one sheet of paper or in a smart device in order to make it easily accessible.
- Allow extra time in all aspects of your travel. Avoid flights that require a connection and if you must, make sure your connection allows you enough time to transfer. Keep in mind that you may require extra time for feeding, toileting, or medication administration.
- If the person needs help using the restroom, look for companion care bathrooms so you can more easily assist and will not have to leave the person unattended. Stay with the person at all times.
- If you must stay overnight in a hotel, inform the staff ahead of time of your specific needs.
- Travel during the time of day that is best for the person with dementia. For most, this is the earlier half of the day but each person’s best time will vary.
- Always arrange wheel chair assistance with the airline. Most airlines ask for at least 48 hours’ notice for wheelchair assistance.
- Contact TSA CARES. TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. It is best to call at least 72 hours prior to travel. TSA CARES can be reached at 855-787-2227. Let the TSA Support Specialist know that your family member requires assistance during the screening process due to cognitive impairment. They will need to know if they can walk without assistance or need to remain in a wheelchair.
Additional Clearance and Considerations
In some cases, airline personnel may ask for a doctors’ clearance for the traveler. This is normally not common with dementia unless the person is exhibiting uncontrolled behaviors. Airlines cannot prohibit passengers from flying based on disability unless they pose a threat to the safety of others. The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. Learn more about the Passengers with Disabilities Act on the Department of Transportation’s website.
When to Consider a Commercial Medical Escort
If your travel needs are imminent and you cannot leave a loved one in respite care but anticipate travel will be extremely difficult, consider hiring a medical escort service. Commercial Medical Escorts (CME) specialize in this type of travel. They will coordinate your entire trip and will send a licensed or certified medical professional travel with you. Most companies allow family members, caregivers, or a pet to accompany your loved one as well. Here at Trinity Air Medical, we specialize in transporting individuals who have dementia and can help your loved one reach his or her destination safe and sound. Contact us to learn more about our services.
About the Author
Cheryl Aisporna is the Director of Clinical Operations at Trinity Air Medical. Trinity Air Medical is a Global Logistics Organization that specializes in global medical travel. For more information on medical travel, please contact our clinical team at Trinityairmedical.com.