Surviving a Long Car Trip with a Parent with Dementia

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Traveling with older parents is always an adventure. But, dementia adds a whole new layer of complexity. The key to surviving a car trip with a parent with dementia is to bring familiar items, expect the unexpected, and to manage your own stress as well.

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surviving a long car trip with a parent with dementia

Long car rides are challenging for any traveler. Even more so if you are traveling with a parent with dementia.

But, despite the many things that can go wrong, it is possible to have a hugely successful road trip. If you plan ahead.

Along the way, you may encounter bouts of behavioral problems, bathroom emergencies, and periods of confusion.

It’s best to have a plan of attack for each possible scenario. So, here are several tips for some of the most common concerns for surviving a long car trip with a parent with dementia.

Potential Pitfalls

Go ahead and face it. You will experience a bump or two in the road throughout your road trip. These challenges will vary based on the level of dementia your parent is currently experiencing.

Generally, though, a person with dementia will likely struggle in several areas, including the following:

  • Change to their daily routine.
  • Climate or elevation changes.
  • New geographical environments.
  • Time zone changes.

Unfortunately, you won’t know how a trip will go until you go on your first. Will they try to open the car door while it is moving? Will they wander off if left on their own?

Expecting the unexpected will increase your chances of a successful road trip.

Find a Restroom and Do Not Pass Go

sign pointing to public restrooms with trees in the background

Some dementia patients can no longer inform you of their basic needs.

They might be unable to tell you when they need the bathroom or are hungry. Even if you ask them if they need to go, oftentimes, they will say no. Even if they do need a pit stop.

It is highly important to plan regular bathroom breaks along the route. Look at a map and plan these stops in advance. Once you are on the road, knowing the distance between stops can be difficult.

Need to Find a Bathroom in a Hurry?

One solution to this problem is to use an app that will actually inform you of bathrooms nearby in case of emergencies. A few good ones are the Sit Or Squat App by Charmin or Bathroom Scout. You can find these in your phone’s app marketplace.

This may add a few hours to your trip. However, it will help to keep the peace and prevent accidents.

Another critical component of bathroom breaks is to be certain never to leave a parent with dementia alone. If you are traveling with a parent of the opposite gender, it might be a good idea to have a travel partner of the same to help in the bathroom.

When you stop, and they do not have to use the facilities, and you do, you still have to keep them with you.

The Importance of a Travel Partner

Have a driving partner if you are traveling for more than several hours.

This person can also help to take turns staying with your parent when you need gas or a few minutes of quiet.

If your parent has advanced dementia, a travel buddy can provide peace of mind and assistance. This person will particularly come in handy if your parent requires assistance to shower, dress, and go to the bathroom.

Have the driving partner sit in the back with your parent. There they can help more easily and keep your parent engaged. And your travel partner can help ensure appropriate heating and air conditioning temperatures to reduce agitation.

back seat of a car shown through the open car door

One Seat is Not Like the Others

Believe it or not, their seat makes a significant difference.

It turns out that the ideal seat for someone with dementia is the middle seat in the back. This will help to prevent them from trying to open car doors as the vehicle moves. It might also minimize anxiety. Plus, it prevents them from rolling down windows and throwing things out. They will also get a better 180-degree view as well.

Use child safety locks for doors and windows in case they attempt to change seats while you are driving. Also, bring cushions, pillows or comfy travel seats to make the trip more pleasant for them physically.

Never let a person with dementia sit in the front. This is to prevent their urge to grab the wheel as you drive. And it will prevent items that drop or get thrown from being trapped under pedals.

Don’t Forget to Pack Your Patience

Traveling with a parent with dementia will be challenging at times. Your patience will be tested. So, have a strategy in place up front to manage your stress.

The important thing is to make the trip as enjoyable as possible for all of you.

If you need a mental break from the action, play some road games to keep everyone entertained. Bring games they can play, such as electronic bingo. Play 20 questions with topics they are familiar with, such as guessing former celebrities.

More Tips for Surviving Your Road Trip

Here are some more tips to make your trip less stressful:

  • Take plenty of their favorite snacks and water to prevent dehydration and irritation from hunger. But, balance hydration needs with bathroom breaks.
  • Bring plenty of familiar items from home, such as a favorite blanket, cards, books, and pictures, to reduce stress.
  • Play familiar music to keep the mood positive.
  • Pack plenty of clothes for all weather conditions, with extra outfits for potential spills or accidents. But, also try to pack light to make overnight stops easier to maneuver. Or, you could pack a separate bag for the stops along the way.
  • Don’t forget about a safe-return bracelet with their name and your phone number in case you would get separated.

Summary and Final Tips

My most valuable tip is always to expect the unexpected.

You can never plan for everything on any road trip, particularly when you travel with a dementia patient. If you take steps to prevent mood swings and confusion, you are well on your way to a successful trip.

Remember that you cannot control everything, so take a deep breath and enjoy your time together.

Have you ever traveled with a senior with dementia? What tips do you have for making the trip easier on the seniors and their travel mates? Please share in the comments below.

Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)®
Senior Home Safety Specialist (SHSS)®
Assistive Technology Professional

Scott Grant has spent more than 20 years serving seniors and the elderly in the home medical equipment industry. He has worked as a manufacturer's rep for the top medical equipment companies and a custom wheelchair specialist at a durable medical equipment (DME) provider in WV. He is father to 4 beautiful daughters and has three terrific grandkids. When not promoting better living for older adults, he enjoys outdoor activities including hiking and kayaking and early morning runs.

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