How to plan and care for a cruise companion with dementia (Photo: WIN12_ET/Stutterstock)

Cruising With Dementia

Bringing someone with dementia on a cruise takes careful planning, and flexibility. The same things that people enjoy about travel -- new sights, unexpected experiences and a change from the routine -- can be overwhelming for someone with dementia. People with the disease find comfort in the familiar, so the challenge is to create a safe environment in an unfamiliar setting. Still, taking a trip can also have benefits, letting the cognitively impaired feel connected with family and the outside world. Here's what you need to know about planning a cruise for a family member with dementia.

Updated August 2, 2018

The Prep

Check with the cruise line before booking the trip. Some may require a doctor's note saying it's OK for the patient to travel. And consider a cruise designed for dementia patients, like those offered through Elite Cruises and Vacations.

Before planning a trip, though, also check with your doctor. It's important to be realistic about the passenger's condition. Someone in stage 6 or 7 dementia, which the Alzheimer's Association describes as severe cognitive decline, is too advanced to safely make the trip, experts say.

In addition, the Alzheimer's Association says that patients should not travel if they have:

  • Severe disorientation and agitation in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Delusional, paranoid or aggressive behavior
  • Severe incontinence
  • Wandering behavior

You'll need to take the same precautions that you would take with a 3- to 5-year-old, advises Dr. Josepha A. Cheong, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. Indeed, no one with dementia should travel by themselves. Taking a trip requires careful planning and communication. It's important to tell the patient what to expect, and to review the trip several times before leaving.

Consider traveling with more than one family member or companion. Or, if you can afford it, bring along a caregiver. Looking after a dementia patient is a 24-hour job, so it helps to have help. It's also necessary to adjust expectations. This vacation is going to be different from trips taken when the patient was healthy.

Finally, choose your ship carefully. Even healthy people can be overwhelmed by a large ship, so it's probably best to consider a smaller one. Select a stateroom close to elevators, and carefully study deck plans, so you have a good idea of the layout.

In Flight

Every step of the trip should be carefully considered. Take the shortest route available and avoid layovers and tight connections. Try to get seats that minimize interaction with others, and put the patient in a window or middle seat with the caregiver on the outside so the patient can't easily get up and wander around the plane.

Print out boarding passes and schedules, and have the caregiver -- not the patient -- carry them. Also have the patient wear an identification tag around their neck, with all flight and contact info. Tell the airline beforehand about the patient's condition, and make sure it's added to the flight record.

If you'll be flying through a large airport, consider requesting a wheelchair escort so you won't have to worry about navigating long concourses. Likewise, tell the TSA officer about the disease when you approach security, and have a doctor's note describing the patient's condition.

Check all your luggage, but be sure to take a carry-on with snacks, all medicines and an extra set of clothing in case of toileting accidents. Indeed, try to limit the patient's liquid intake for the same reason. Check with your doctor to see if it's appropriate to give the patient a mild tranquilizer before the flight.

Onboard Your Cruise

The biggest challenge for many dementia patients is wandering, so you must monitor your patient constantly. Have them wear identification with their name and cabin number. Some caregivers bring a door alarm in case the patient decides to leave the room.

Make sure the cabin steward and waiters know about the patient's condition. Also, ask the maitre d' for a smaller table to limit the patient's interaction with other passengers. Still, you can't expect the staff to be caregivers; they are not trained to work with dementia patients, and you'll have to take the lead. Keep in mind that if the patient does wander and becomes a danger to himself, or others, you may be asked to leave the cruise at the next port.

Watch your loved one carefully. Many families on a cruise discover that their relative has learned to mask their disease in familiar surroundings, and are surprised to see how poorly they function in a new setting.

While onboard, try to establish a daily routine, having breakfast at the same place and time. You'll also want to make your cabin comfortable by bringing familiar objects from home. Be flexible, and willing to drop plans at a moment's notice. If the patient is tired or overly confused, you might have to skip an evening show, or gala dinner, and opt for a quiet dinner in your cabin.

As for shore excursions, ask questions and read reviews. It may be best to limit them to bus tours and other simple outings. Make sure to leave plenty of time to return to the ship before its scheduled departure.

For information about cruising with a different medical condition, see our articles on:

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