Friendlier skies for those with dementia
Andrea Nissen is trying to prepare her 65-year-old husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, for a solo flight to visit family in Oklahoma. She worries about travelers and airport officials misinterpreting his forgetfulness or habit of getting in people’s personal space, and feels guilty about not being able to accompany him.
“People say, ‘He has dementia. You can’t let him go by himself,’” Nissen said.
But attending a dementia-friendly travel workshop in July helped ease some of those fears. Nissen learned about the resources available at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and what assistance airlines can offer when asked.
It was the first time the city of Phoenix hosted such a workshop, making it the latest U.S. city pledging to make flying friendlier for people with dementia.
Nearly a dozen airports — from Phoenix to New Orleans — in the last few years have modified their facilities and operations to be more dementia-friendly, advocates say. They’ve added amenities like quiet rooms and a simulation center where travelers with dementia can learn about flying or get a refresher. [Ed. Note: As of press time, no participating airports exist in the D.C. area.]
Looking for a gate, trying to remember flight times or following terse commands from Transportation Secsurity Administration agents while in line with others can overwhelm someone with dementia. Symptoms like forgetting words can be mistaken for being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Many airports ‘behind the curve’
But most large U.S. airports are behind the curve on serving travelers with dementia when compared with some airports in Australia and Europe.
Dementia isn’t covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so nobody is compelled by law to make changes, said Sara Barsel, a former special education teacher and founder of the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group, which lobbies for airports and airlines to enact dementia-inclusive policies.
Part of the reason she suspects there aren’t more quiet rooms at airports is because they don’t generate revenue, she said.
“I don’t know what their constraints are in terms of economics. I know what the impact is, and the impact is that there’s less for people who need quiet spaces,” said Barsel, who is based in Roseville, Minnesota.
The group, which was founded in 2018 by experts in dementia and Alzheimer’s, helped add lanyard and other programs to airports.
London’s Gatwick Airport created the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard program in 2016, which is now in over 200 airports globally. Light-green lanyards with a sunflower pattern are issued to anyone who wants to subtly indicate they or a travel companion has dementia or a not-as-visible disability. The lanyards let airport and airline personnel know the traveler may need more attention or to have information repeated.
One of the first airports the group reached out to was the Missoula Montana Airport, which became certified as a “sensory inclusive” facility in March. The group went over issues that can arise with lighting, floor design and noise. It also incorporated the sunflower lanyards.
“It’s already a high-stress, anxiety-driven environment for anyone not suffering from a hidden disability,” said airport Deputy Director Tim Damrow.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone is welcomed and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Jan Dougherty, a registered nurse who has written a book on traveling with dementia and led the Phoenix workshop, said with the right support, people with dementia can travel safely.
“So many people early on [after diagnosis] are capable of travel with some accommodation,” she said.
For more information, see dementiafriendlyairports.com.