two women wave to each other in front of a window showing a plane taking off of the airport runway as a man pulls the older woman's suitcase through a door to boarding

Is it Safe for My Loved One to Travel Alone?

A year ago my mom moved states away from her childhood home to live with me and my family. She is in the early stages of living with Alzheimer's dementia.

With lots of family and friends still back in her hometown, she likes to visit often. But as her caregiver, each time we book another flight I'm faced with the question: Is it safe for my mom to travel alone?

This is not an easy question to answer and one that is hard to make on your own. It also can change constantly. I have learned to rely on Mom's doctor, assessments from friends and family, and also the many services available to elderly and disabled travelers.

I wish I could travel with her every time but I have three little kids at home. My mom deserves to go where she wants and do the activities she wants as long as she possibly can. And it's my desire to help her do so.

Dementia road blocks for travelers

Mom is very independent and has no problem putting together an outfit, remembering to take her medications, and caring for her dog.

But she has difficulty initiating tasks, making decisions, and navigating confusing web pages. Even the airlines have blinking ads and so many buttons to click on. The internet is not exactly dementia-friendly.

Arranging travel plans

Now I don't wait for her to try to do those things on her own. Of course, I would love to give her the chance to initiate herself. But I've found that it's not helpful to "test" our loved ones with dementia but rather to step in when they need help.

So I remind her that the date is coming up - does she still need to book her flight? I sit down with her on the computer and help her click through each page. If she isn't feeling up to it or I can tell she's overwhelmed, I book it for her later so she doesn't have to make so many decisions.

She packs her suitcase on her own and I just do a quick check at the end to make sure all the essentials - medicine, Pacemaker machine, mask, ID, and boarding pass - are in there too.

Pack snacks in a purse or carry-on if your loved one doesn't want to eat airport food.

Take advantage of services

There are a lot of free and paid services to allow elderly and disabled people to travel safely. Some require a little extra planning and organization.

If possible, book direct flights or ones without tight connections. Some airlines have a "meet-and-greet" service that escorts customers to their gate or helps them with connections.

I also make sure to have her bags checked at the curb or at the airline desk, so she doesn't have to carry anything heavy through the airport or risk losing something.

My mom exercises regularly and doesn't have issues walking. But when we know it's going to be a long walk to her gate, or a tight time frame, we sign up for the wheelchair service. Then she is whisked through the airport by an employee and doesn't have to worry about knowing where to go. Sometimes we get lucky and she is even allowed to board the plane first.

When dropping off at the airport, allow time for bathroom breaks before the flight.

Trust and dementia travel

Some of these services require you to trust the employees taking care of your loved one. As a caregiver, I know that can be hard and requires you to use your best judgment.

I make sure Mom has someone waiting for her at the other end, and give them the itinerary. We stay in contact to make sure she's boarded the plane and gotten picked up. Even in the early stages of dementia, I don't feel comfortable with mom being on public transit or rideshare service.

This is a safety issue. While I feel safe informing the airline or TSA that my mother has dementia, I am aware that other strangers might take advantage of that. You are the caregiver and the only one who can assess if the risks outweigh the benefits.

Is it safe for mom to travel alone?

Part of mom's difficulties when she lived alone were safety issues like leaving candles burning or forgetting to lock the door at night. She also stopped driving a few years back because she would get lost going to familiar places. Big crowds and unfamiliar environments overwhelmed her and made her symptoms worse.

Because of this, I worried that she might get turned around in the crowded, stressful airport and miss her flight. Or she wouldn't remember her pacemaker and walk through a metal detector at the airport.

The only solution was to have a travel buddy for a few flights. We arranged certain travel plans so that a family member could escort her and fly on the same flight as her. We were able to assess how she did and make sure she'd be safe flying solo.

Thankfully, even though the disease is slowly progressing, she remembers to show her pacemaker card, can independently check her bag at the desk, and navigate to her gate.

When our local airport was remodeled, I called ahead and went early. I was able to check in as a caregiver, go through security, and meet mom at her gate when she got off the plane. I showed her the way to baggage claim and pointed out the signs she would need when she came next time.

The next time she flew, she did great on her own and I felt peace knowing we had done it before. Ask your airport if they have the same services.

Your effort is worthwhile

We had to put in some work to make sure Mom was safe to fly alone. And because we know it could change suddenly, we still assess it regularly and also take any opportunity for her to fly with a friend or family member.

It's worth the effort so that my mom can experience the freedom of traveling and the joy of seeing friends and family back home. Some day she likely won't be able to travel on her own, so we're taking advantage of every opportunity today.

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