Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated one in 14 people aged over 65 in the UK. Over the next decade, numbers are forecast to swell to over one million sufferers.
Like other forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a particularly heart-wrenching disease. Family and loved ones can feel as if they are watching the person they knew disappear in front of them.
And for patients themselves, the onset of dementia can be bewildering and terrifying. You no longer feel in control. Once basic tasks become a huge challenge, you are reduced to dependency on others.
The general perception is that, as Alzheimer’s progresses, quality of life slowly ebbs away. You stop doing the things you once loved doing. You become increasingly home-bound. And what is more, your caregivers experience the same narrowing of their horizons.
But for people living with Alzheimer’s, whether a sufferer themselves or as a caregiver, they will tell you that that characterisation is not entirely fair. Indeed, there is often an extra determination to cherish the time they have left together, to make fresh memories, and to enjoy what the world has to offer.
And that includes continuing to enjoy holidays for as long as possible. Travel benefits for Alzheimer’s patients and their carers are widely recognised. New experiences provide stimulation and a sense of connection with close ones. Visiting scenic places help to lift spirits and improve mood, providing a positive emotional boost to all.
Yet that’s not to say that travelling with Alzheimer’s is as straightforward as booking your tickets and packing your bags. It takes a certain amount of planning and, just as important, an honest appraisal of the risks versus the rewards. Here are four things to weigh up.
This post is part of our family travel health series
1. Do the negatives outweigh the positives?
There does come a point, especially with late-stage Alzheimer’s, when planning a trip away could end up doing more harm than good. As a close family member or caregiver, you will be well placed to judge that. But as a rule of thumb, once someone can no longer affirm that they want to go somewhere, you should tread extra carefully.
If they show signs of distress or disorientation even on short excursions, if they get easily upset or agitated in different environments, if their behaviour is erratic, inappropriate or aggressive, then you are risking a holiday becoming a stressful and unhappy experience for everyone. If in doubt, always consult a doctor for advice.
2. Consider sticking closer to home for shorter stays
There are three very good reasons why shorter trips with less travelling involved may work best for people suffering from Alzheimer’s. One is that travel itself can be stressful. The longer the actual journey goes on, the higher the risk of someone suffering from dementia becoming agitated and anxious.
Second, Alzheimer’s patients may start to pine for familiar surroundings if they are away from home for too long. Although breaking up routines and seeking new experiences is good for stimulation, there is a fine balance to be struck. Familiar environments are comforting for dementia sufferers. They are likely to get most out of a short break or three or four days when they don’t have the chance to start missing home.
Third, ending up somewhere where the climate, environment, language and culture are very different from home can be too much for some dementia patients. Familiar destinations provide a degree of comfort, especially those they have visited before.
3. Larger groups provide extra support
It’s very common for the spouse or partner of someone with Alzheimer’s to be their primary care provider. It’s perfectly normal to think in terms of planning a holiday together as a couple, as you may have been doing for many years.
But as a sole source of support for someone with Alzheimer’s, that can put a lone carer under a lot of stress. Just like your partner, you will be faced with the unfamiliar in whatever holiday destination you choose, you won’t have the routines, home comforts and people you rely on when you need them. This can make the experience very difficult for a carer.
To put it another way, care providers also deserve to enjoy their holidays. They deserve to be able to step out from having the weight of care solely on their shoulders and to relish the time spent with their loved one. A great way to do this is to travel in a larger group, perhaps with close family or friends who can lend a hand as and when needed.
4. Get the right travel insurance – from the right provider
Finally, it’s important to know that any diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, even at the very earliest stages, must be declared to your travel insurance provider. Sadly, a lot of people with Alzheimer’s and the people supporting them report facing obstacles getting travel insurance in the form of unaffordable premiums or companies flat-out refusing to offer a policy.
To avoid these difficulties, look for a provider that specialises in medical travel insurance for neurodegenerative diseases. Most insurers charge sky-high prices for any kind of medical condition on the basis that it raises the risk of a customer making a claim for medical treatment while on holiday. There’s no consideration of the actual state of health of the person.
A specialist, however, will seek to understand the needs of the individual and put together a policy (and quotation) accordingly. With Alzheimer’s patients, this will involve asking questions about the level of day-to-day support the individual requires, mobility needs and any recent episodes of ill-health. The aim is to provide cover that meets their needs should anything occur while on holiday – and to offer a policy at a fairer price.