Millions of people will go on a cruise this year. With so many ports of call around the world and a wide range of activities to interest people of all ages - all conveniently located in one place - it's no wonder cruising is so popular. These days, there's really something for everyone one a cruise, from gourmet dining, to surfing, to attending a Broadway-style show.
With so many appealing options, cruising has also become a popular way for extended families to connect. Multi-generational cruising is extremely popular, allowing grandparents, parents and kids to all enjoy a memory-making experience. And cruises have always been popular with older adults.
"Cruise vacations are a great option for seniors because they can do as much or as little as they want, depending on their level of ability," says Ronald Pettite, senior specialist for access with Royal Caribbean International. "Some seniors are quite active, and others are more relaxed."
Having a family member with dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, or mobility impairments doesn't mean cruising is off limits. Most cruise lines will work to accommodate your needs so that everyone has an enjoyable vacation. Pettite offers this travel advice for caregivers traveling with a loved one.
Planning Your Trip
Duration. Consider the length of time you'll spend on a cruise. You may want to take a three-night or four-night cruise rather than booking a longer trip to see how your loved one does. If all goes well, a longer cruise may be in your future.
Size of vessel. Some travelers prefer going on smaller ships since there are fewer places for a memory-impaired guest to remember – or wander off to. However, Pettite has had many success stories with cruisers who travel on the larger cruise lines.
Alert staff. At the time of booking, let the cruise line know in advance that a person with special needs will be aboard. Cruise ships are designed to accommodate people with moderate disabilities, but stating your needs up front is the best way for cruise workers to assist you. Most ships offer accessible staterooms with wider doors, bathrooms with roll-in shower and grab bars, as well as other features that accommodate guests who use wheelchairs and scooters. Some ships even offer automatic entry doors into staterooms.
Book in advance. You'll want to book your trip as far in advance as possible to ensure that you can have a room next to or across from your loved one. Adjoining staterooms are also available, which give you privacy, yet access to the person you are caring for.
Choose room location. Pettite suggests choosing a stateroom that will be easy to get to, such as at the end of a hall, or closest to the areas you and your loved one will use the most during the cruise, such as the dining hall or the pool. "Think about forward verses aft, and how many decks you'll be away from the stateroom," Pettite adds. Nearly all cruise lines have a map of the ship online, so before you book your cruise, consider the activities that you and your loved one want to take part, and use that to choose an accessible stateroom.
Take medication and prescriptions. If your loved one takes medication, be sure to pack enough to last through the trip. It's also a good idea to bring the written prescriptions with you on your trip just in case. This information will help the ship's doctor should there be an unforeseen medical emergency.
Getting On Board
So you've booked your tickets and pointed out your special needs. While cruise lines can't accommodate every request, most ships will make every possible effort to meet the needs of disabled or memory-impaired guests.
Priority boarding. One way to do this is by offering priority boarding and disembarkation and extra assistance during those important times. Cruise staff members are responsible for getting thousands of people on and off the ship in a timely and efficient manner, so again, letting staff know of your needs in advance will allow them – and you – to better prepare, and help make the process run as smoothly as possible.
Public areas. Getting around on a ship should be fairly easy since public areas usually offer wide corridors, wheelchair ramps, elevators and even lifts to get in and out of swimming pools. Restrooms are wheelchair accessible and some cruise lines even offer unisex, or family bathrooms so caregivers can assist their loved one.
Making the Most of your Trip
Identification. Once on board, make sure your loved one wears a wristband or a lanyard at all times. The tag should be clearly printed with the wearer's name, ship name and stateroom number, along with a cell phone or onboard phone number of the caregiver. Be sure to carry current photos of your loved one with you on the trip as well. Although everyone has a photo taken for identification purposes when they board the ship, it may take a while for cruise personnel to retrieve it.
Clothing. Pettite also recommends dressing your loved one in bright colors or distinctive clothing, if possible, so they will be easily recognizable in a crowd.
Select activities. Cruise ships have a wide range of activities for guests to participate in. There are dance classes, wine tastings, bingo games and other social events. On a cruise, you'll never be bored. Be sure to ask your loved one which events and activities they would like to enjoy, then you can either take your loved one to the activity, or talk to a cruise staff member about whether it is appropriate to leave your loved one alone during the activity.
Ask about tracking devices. The average cruise ship is several football fields long and wide. It's easy for people without memory problem to get lost on these enormous vessels, let alone those who are living with the impairment dementia and Alzheimer's can cause. To assist, cruise lines are starting to rent high tech mobile devices with GPS tracking to passengers during their stay. Originally designed with children and teens in mind, utilizing this technology for older adults can provide piece of mind for you, the caregiver, while allowing your loved one of have a certain amount of independence. Not every cruise ship offers this technology, so ask about this or similar services when you book the cruise.
Make your room recognizable. Because cruise ships are so large, one corridor looks like another. Pettite suggests that guests decorate their loved ones stateroom door so it will be easily recognizable. If the person you're caring for tends to wander, pack a small travel door alarm with you to alert you when the stateroom door opens.
Plan meals ahead of time. Dining is a large part of the cruise experience. If your loved one doesn't handle crowds well, request a table for just your party at the beginning of the cruise. When going to the dining room, be sure to take the same route each time to avoid confusing your loved one. Many cruise lines also offer dining alternatives, so you can dine when and where it's convenient for your schedule, instead being required to eat in the formal dining room at an appointed time. And don't forget, there's always room service.
Remember, cruise ships are finite places. Guests can't readily get off the ship and wander too far. Armed with these suggestions, your cruise should be an enjoyable experience. Remember, going on a cruise with a loved one is about creating memories. Notes Pettite, "Even if your loved one can't remember everything, you will remember those memories."