A Caregiver’s Tip: Coping with Dementia on Outings


There’s a warning sign at our local airport. I suspect it was inspired by a conversation a staff member had with my mother.

Some years back, post 9/11, I was queueing with Mum at the airline ticketing counter. As I lifted her luggage onto the scales, the friendly staffer asked whether Mum had packed her own bags. At that point, my mother had been experiencing memory problems for several years.

“What sort of question is that?” she inquired.

“Just a security question, Ma'am.”

“Security?” said Mum. “For heaven's sake!”

My mother can be quite witty—biting even. But in this situation, where she was completely oblivious to the context, it wasn't the least bit funny. Things got worse when I tried to explain about the terror attacks.

“Of course I’m a terrorist—my bag is absolutely full of bombs!” Mum said sarcastically.

We were immediately marched off to the emergency counter for more detailed questioning. Once there, I whispered something about Mum having Alzheimer's disease and all was forgiven.

The next time I visited the airport, there was the sign: “We take all jokes about security seriously. Police/authorities will be informed and criminal charges may apply. Your safety and security is our priority.”

Memory problems can get you into some sticky situations. As a caregiver, it’s hard to know what to tell people. Failing to forewarn others can be distressing and confusing for all concerned, but sometimes I feel resentful. Surely I shouldn't have to tell people. Things should just unfold naturally without me prefacing every situation with an explanation of Mum’s condition. Regardless, I’m going with the “forewarned is best” policy more often than not these days. This is for my own sake and Mum’s.

I’ve discovered that if people know she has memory problems, they figure out how to have a mutually enjoyable conversation a lot more quickly. It helps them skirt around those awkward moments where you can see them thinking, “I thought I just answered that.”

Of course, you can't prepare everyone, and you shouldn’t have to, either. But for those tricky occasions when you're dealing with a shop assistant or a ticketing officer, it's great to have something up your sleeve. My trick is a small business-sized card courtesy of my local Alzheimer's organization. When things are going awry, I slip it out of my wallet and discreetly slide it across the counter to the person we are working with.

It says, “My companion has an illness which causes memory loss and confusion. Please excuse any unusual behavior.”

The customer service is transformed and Mum doesn't notice a thing.

I wish I’d had it with me that day at the airport.

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

Saturdays with Mum

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I'm actually considering making up a business card that explains his condition so I don't have to do the awkward explanations when in public. My husband loves to go out in public but is not great at what is considered polite behavior anymore.
Thanks so much for this article. It validates what I had to figure out and do for my in-laws. We brought them to our state 3 years ago, to Assisted Living (first) and now they are in the facility's nursing home. They were drowning in trying to cope and didn't want anyone to know. I had to be a detective and figure out EVERYTHING to do with their affairs, financial and otherwise, because they through so many important things away. I take them to all their dr. appointments (they could go on the facility's bus, but then what would I know??), so I soon found out that I couldn't say the "A" word in front of my mother-in-law, plus she and my father-in-law could play a cool game of "Who has Dementia? Not me!" I soon figured out what I had to do is fax the dr the day before the appointment with all the information (especially a new dr or if there was an issue, not just a checkup). I would remind the dr that s/he has dementia, why we were seeing him/her, and what I needed or suspected. It has helped immensely! Sometimes I even have to laugh to myself, because the dr comes in and doesn't even ask why s/he is there (just goes from my notes). Yikes! ;)