Navigating through an airport with a family member who has Alzheimer’s can be a nail-biting excursion.
Unfamiliar surroundings heighten confusion, impair the ability to follow directions and trigger agitation—none of which you want to experience as you’re getting body-scanned by airport security.
Here’s how to get through it all with as little hassle as possible.
Sharon Roszel of Hamilton, Ont., has flown at least a dozen times with her 86-year-old mother Vera, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and every time Sharon has planned in advance so that check-in and security would go smoothly.
My mom always wore identification around her neck with her name, address, my home number and cell number on it.
“My mom always wore identification around her neck with her name, address, my home number and cell number on it,” she says.
Neck ID works better than ID around the wrist, a place where it can easily be covered by a jacket and go unnoticed by airport staff.
Roszel also makes sure to speak to security first. “I always talk to them with my mom at my side to tell them she has Alzheimer’s and probably won’t be able to answer their questions. They are always very good with me,” she says. That means they direct questions at Roszel rather than her mom and are understanding and gentle when patting Vera down in security.
To minimize the chances of her mom becoming disoriented and panicking in the airport or worse—losing mom in the airport or being tagged by security as a threat— Roszel always chooses daytime flights (her mom gets tired at night) and always stays within her mother’s sight. If Roszel has to use the bathroom, for example, Vera stands outside the stall holding her daughter’s coat and purse and talking to her until Roszel comes out.
“I find a lot of times when I take her somewhere she isn’t familiar with, she gets very confused and afraid,” says Roszel. “She starts looking for me. So I always, always have her with me and constantly reassure her that everything is okay and she is going on a holiday with me and will have lots of fun.”
HEAD OFF SECURITY CONFLICTS
As Roszel does, putting together an identification card is key. Include relevant information such family member’s name, age, phone numbers and addresses. You can check with your airline to see if they have a form or card (such as Air Canada’s Fitness for Travel form here).
Some airports, such as Chicago’s O’Hare, put together an Accessibility Guide.
It’s also a good idea to have a copy of your name and phone numbers in your family member’s pocket in case you do get separated.
Phone ahead to inform the airline you’re travelling with a family member who has dementia, and tell your travel agent (if you use one) as well.
You can also register your family member with the MedicAlert Safely Alone program. The program helps security and first responders, such as police, recognize that your family member has Alzheimer’s, if they wander away.
AT THE AIRPORT
Present yourself and your family member to the border services officer at the Special Services Counter to explain your situation, says Esme Bailey, a senior media spokesperson with the Ottawa-based Canada Border Services Agency.
“Along with identification for you and the person in your care, have documentation outlining their abilities and your authority/responsibilities, which could include a letter from the individual’s doctor,” she says.
“Any prescription medication should also be clearly labelled and have contact information easily accessible should the border services officer require additional information.”
Request the use of a wheelchair, which will not only make things easier for your charge, but also attract attention and assistance from airport staff and flight crew. Early boarding may minimize anxiety by allowing you to help your charge get settled, so request priority boarding.
Astrid Van Den Broek is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada