A woman with Alzheimers on an airplane looks distressed by light above her showing the stars, sun, and moon. The people around her sleep in the dark.

Traveling Alone with Dementia: The Story of Our Mother, Joan

Not long after Joan moved to Pennsylvania, it became clear she was showing small signs of declining cognitive abilities. As a caregiver, you notice little things that are different. The natural tendency is to disregard them. Consider them as minor blips of the aging process. Unfortunately, it is easier to remember who she was than who she is becoming.

Making the decision to travel alone with Alzheimer's

We decided (within the first year) that she was still capable of traveling alone. She wanted to fly to California to visit her daughter and grandkids as she has done many times. We arranged her flight and coordinated her stay with her daughter.

As a precaution, we received “gate clearance” for departure and arrival. This allowed us to escort her until she boarded, and her daughter would greet her as she walked off the plane. Of course, our thinking was, “How much could happen while sitting on the flight?”

Listening when others express concerns

Obviously, we were not on the flight. And the old saying – “I wish I knew then – what I know now” became a poignant phrase. According to her daughter, when Joan walked off the plane a flight attendant nicely whispered, “she should not fly alone.” Unfortunately, in a week she would be alone on the return flight to PA.

After arriving back in Philadelphia, we met her at the airport. She walked off the plane with other passengers. One walking beside her greeted us and said quietly, “She really struggled on the flight.” From this point on, no traveling alone.

Learning lessons for traveling with Alzheimer's

Looking back several years now, we know some of the conditions (which progressively get worse) that would have impacted her travel. Joan struggles with time. The concept of minutes, hours, days, and years have been impacted by Alzheimer's. It seems so simple. But this disease attacks many simple concepts: memory, basic math, time, numbers, names, and ages.

Today, Joan thinks and feels that one minute of time is at least an hour. And if she saw someone this morning, she would think it was yesterday or two days ago. And vice-versa. We can only imagine what a six-hour flight across the country would have felt like to her.

Sometimes you just have to laugh...

We mentioned earlier that we would share our experiences. Some stories are funny. Most are not. But everyone can relate to this next one about traveling with Alzheimer's.

On Joan’s trip to California, her daughter told us this story. Joan tells her that she “wants to go to Rite-Aid.” She has this Rite-Aid card – “and everything is so reasonably priced, it is THE best store.” So, they go in and Joan picks out some type of make-up. They go to the check-out counter and Joan proudly pulls out her Rite-Aid card and her debit card to pay.

The store clerk tells her to swipe her Rite-Aid card and then swipe her red debit card. The store clerk tells Joan, “Your total is $21.50. Press debit. And then enter your PIN number.” Her daughter watches. Then, the clerk says, “Would you like cash back?” Joan says, “Yes, of course.” Clerk says, “Okay – select how much you would like. $20, $30 or $40.”

Joan says, “Well if it’s my choice, I want $40.” As they leave the store, Joan says to her daughter, “See? I told you this is the best store. I got make-up and they gave me $40!”

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