Surviving a Long Car Trip with a Parent with Dementia

scott grant ATP

Certified Assistive Technology Professional
Medical Equipment Guru
Mobility Specialist
Senior Advocate

senior lady hunched over a walker getting in a car
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A long car ride can be challenging for any traveler, particularly for both you and a parent traveling with dementia. Despite the many possible problematic developments, it is possible to have a hugely successful road trip if you plan ahead. You may encounter issues such as behavioral concerns, bathroom emergencies and periods of confusion.

It is best to have a plan of attack for each possible scenario. Below are several tips for some of the most common concerns while traveling a long distance in a car with a loved one who has dementia.

Potential Pitfalls

It is inevitable that you will experience a bump or two in the road throughout your road trip. The challenges will vary based on the level of dementia your parent is currently experiencing. In many stages, a person with dementia will likely struggle in a number of areas including the following:

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

Experienced traveling children of dementia often say that you never know how a trip will go until your first. You never know if they will try to open the car door while it is moving or if they will wander off if left on their own. The success of any trip is contingent upon your preparedness for the unexpected.

Find a Restroom and Do Not Pass Go

sign pointing to public restrooms with trees in the backgroundMost dementia patients are no longer able to inform you of their basic needs. They will not be able to tell you when they need the bathroom or when they are hungry. Even if you ask them if they need to go, often times, they will say no even if they do need a pit stop.

It is highly important to plan regular bathroom breaks along the route. You should plan these in advance as once you are on the road, it can be difficult to know the distance between stops. However, it might be a good idea to use an app that will actually inform you of bathrooms nearby in case of emergencies. This may add a few hours to your trip, however, it will help to keep the peace and prevent accidents.

The same is true of food. Bring plenty of their favorite snacks and water to prevent dehydration and irritation from hunger.

Another critical component to bathroom breaks is to be certain to never 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.

One Seat is Not Like the Others

back seat of a car shown through the open car doorBelieve it or not, the seat they sit in can make 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 and minimize anxiety. It will also help to prevent them from rolling down windows and throwing things out. And, it is more visually stimulating.

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.

And, experts advise that you never permit a person with dementia to 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.

Do Not Forget to Pack Your Patience

open trunk of a car that is empty and ready for suitcasesTraveling with a parent with dementia will be challenging at times. 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, bring games they can play such as electronic bingo. You can play 20 questions topics they are likely still familiar with such as guessing former celebrities.

And, while you are at it, pack plenty of clothes for all weather conditions and potential spills or accidents. At the same time, try to pack light to make overnight stops easier to maneuver. This will minimize the time you have to take your eyes off your parent. And, do not forget a safe-return bracelet with their name and your phone number in case something were to happen.

The Importance of a Travel Partner

If you are traveling more than several hours, have a driving partner. This individual 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 also provide you with 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.

It is also a good idea for your driving partner to sit in the back with your parent. They will be able to help more easily and to keep them engaged. 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. And, your travel partner can help ensure heating and air conditioning temperatures are appropriate to reduce agitation.

The most valuable tip is to always 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. And, remember that you cannot control everything, so take a deep breath and enjoy the time you have together.

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

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