A Caregiver’s Tips: Taking a Vacation When Your Loved One Has Dementia

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I have just returned from five weeks on vacation—a big overseas holiday that we spent almost a year planning. Naturally, I was excited as could be. But as our departure date got closer, I became increasingly worried. What started as a vague feeling of unease gradually turned into anticipatory guilt.

“Five weeks?!” blurted Mum when I first told her I was going away. “I doubt I'll be alive when you get back.”

How would Mum cope? She would have no Saturday outings for five whole weeks, no one answering when she phoned my house, and no one dropping by to sort things out when she became confused, bored, or stuck.

It wasn't like I was the only family member who could help, but I'm definitely the one she relies on. It became obvious I had developed a bad case of “the indispensables,” a chronic condition where the afflicted believes they are the only person in the entire world who can meet the needs of another individual. As soon as I realized that, things improved. With a bit of trial and error, I came up with a plan that actually worked to put both Mum and me at ease.

Below are my five tips for dementia caregivers who are taking a holiday.

1. Keep the Anticipation Short

I noticed early on that, as soon as anyone referenced the impending family vacation, Mum became anxious. So I stopped mentioning it altogether. Whenever Mum brought it up, I told her it was ages away. That really helped reassure her. She stopped worrying and eventually forgot all about it. I didn't revisit the subject until a few days before our departure. That strategy saved both of us months of unnecessary angst.

2. Simplify the Travel Information

The first time around, I got this completely wrong. I foolishly printed off our whole itinerary and gave it to Mum. “It's extremely complicated,” she said, struggling through the two-page document. I threw it away and started from scratch.
“What does Mum need to know?” I asked myself. I settled on four tidbits of information:

  • who was going on the trip,
  • when we were departing,
  • the list of countries we were visiting, and
  • the date of our return.

That was all. I typed this information up in extra-large font, printed it out and taped it to the wall next to Mum’s wardrobe. By the time I got back, it was still kicking around her room. Mum had obviously been looking at it.

3. Accept All Offers of Help

As the departure date neared, friends and family started asking what was happening with Mum. When my Australia-based sister asked what she could do to help, I suggested she pop over for a few days. Friends of mine, whom Mum has known for years, offered to take her on outings and to afternoon teas. My lovely sister-in-law told me she'd like to take Mum out on a couple of days as well. I graciously accepted all offers on my mother's behalf. To make sure Mum got the most benefit from everyone’s generosity, I put together an itinerary that covered all five Saturdays we were gone. For me, the relief was huge, and Mum had a wonderful time with all her new visitors.

4. Let the Staff Know

Even with the itinerary posted to the wall, Mum was bound to wonder where I'd gone. I talked to as many staff members as I could and told them what was happening. I emailed the rest home manager and copied the head nurse on the message. I also provided alternate contact information in case they couldn’t reach me while we were gone. When I got back, I was greeted with hugs all around. Mum's caregivers knew exactly where I had been, and so did Mum. The shared awareness of our vacation minimized confusion for everyone and kept the information consistent for Mum.

5. Send Regular Updates

I gave up on postcards a while back due to the inevitable time lag. If it's a short trip, I'm usually back by the time the first one arrives. In the unlikely event that they do arrive in time, without me to read them to Mum, the postcards are either put aside or pinned to her bulletin board, never to be read again. Instead, I sent Mum a series of emails over the course of this trip. I addressed them to staff members who printed them out and handed them directly to Mum. The news was fresh, immediate and able to be read and reread. I aimed to do one every three or four days but only managed a total of five—one each week.

When we finally arrived back to the airport in Wellington, my mother was part of a noisy welcoming party. She was right there in the thick of it all, smiling and crying. “So lovely to see you all safely back,” she sniffled, kissing and hugging the grandchildren.

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.

Visit Saturdays with Mum

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2 Comments

Last year I took a cruise for 5 days. Felt very anxious and nervous about leaving my alz. husband. We have never been apart in over 37 years. Always went on vacation together but I realized this was no longer feasible for me to get some rest. I had his niece come in from Canada to stay with him. I arranged for caregiver to come everyday to get him ready for day care and at night to get him ready for bed. Also hired an overnight person 12midnight to 7:00AM so niece could have a good night rest. She cared for him very well but when I came back she said "I don't know how you do this and work full time, I'm exhausted." The cruise was expensive and paying everyone to help was a lot but well worth it. I had wi fi on ship so was able to communicate with her throughout the cruise. She said he definitely missed me but they managed to handle him. I took me about a week to get him back to the level I had him where he was cooperative and not as confused. I think he felt I had abandoned him. Looking forward for another cruise but still feeling anxious about it. I know I need the rest but can't get away from that feeling.
I am on vacation out of the country and was very concerned about leaving my husband while I was gone for eight days. Because I visit him every day I made arrangement for our local friends and family to visit him. I usually bring him treats (fruits, candy, coffee and odd snacks). I also left him a little gift bag and card for each day while I was gone with simple things like theater candy, nuts, a little stuffed animal for each day I was gone and it gives hm something to look forward to. When the bags are gone, I'll be back! I have also had the opportunity to talk to him every day and even FaceTimed with him once!