The Caregiver’s Guide to Car Travel with Your Loved One with Alzheimer’s

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Transporting someone with Alzheimer’s disease by car comes with a variety of challenges for caregivers. Depending on their exact symptoms, a loved one may feel anxious, confused, or even fearful of getting into an automobile. Though it’s helpful to limit the need for car trips as much as possible, it’s still important for caregivers to feel confident when getting behind the wheel to transport their charge as needed.

 This guide will help you find better ways to transport your Alzheimer’s loved one by car. By anticipating their needs and limitations, preparing them for travel, and helping them stay occupied and calm in transit, you can make the driving experience smoother for both of you.


Identifying and Understanding Your Loved One’s Transportation Anxiety


 The first step in addressing car travel anxiety is understanding it. You must identify exactly what it is your loved one feels when it comes to auto transport; helping someone overcome their fear of the car will require a different solution than helping someone cope with anxiety over leaving home, but the behaviors may look the same. It’s possible your loved one isn’t even completely certain of what they feel, only that they get agitated at the idea of getting into the car.


 The best way to find out what upsets your loved one about riding in the car is to talk to them, though it may not be feasible in every situation. Try sitting them down in a comfortable, relaxed setting when they are at their most lucid — perhaps in the morning after breakfast. Let them know you’ve noticed they appear to have anxiety when it comes to car travel, and you want to know how to help. Be mindful of your tone and demeanor to show your genuine interest and concern; display open body language, and be an active listener to show that you’re paying attention. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification or better understanding, but avoid sounding judgmental or irritated.


 If your loved one has trouble finding the right explanation for what they’re feeling — which, unfortunately, may occur in those with particularly advanced Alzheimer’s — and you’re not completely familiar with their history, seek insight from close relatives. Ask if the memory of a long-ago car accident could be resurfacing, or if there is another reason the patient might have for disliking car rides. Make sure you consult anyone outside the situation in confidence as a sign of respect; never bring up the topic in front of the person with Alzheimer’s and risk embarrassing them.


 If conversation does little to shed light on the problem, reflect on which part of the process seems to bring about the most trouble. Does your loved one immediately object to the idea of running an errand, or do the issues tend to arise as you’re actually getting into the car? Do they repeatedly ask where you’re going, forgetting the answer each time you respond? Do they seem to be disoriented when they leave home in general?

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 Similarly, think back to any successful car trips you may have had together and see if you can detect a pattern or clue. Where did you go? What time of day was it? What had your loved one been doing immediately before getting into the car? Did you listen to music in transit? Were you chatting?


 It may help to start keeping a travel journal to note down this kind of information. Log each car trip you take together, including the date, time, destination, weather, previous activities of the day, and anything else that might be relevant. Ask any other weekend, part-time, or family caregivers to do the same, and compare notes once you’ve gotten a few entries. Discuss your loved one’s observable mood and demeanor. Was it:

l  Generally anxious?

l  Fearful?

l  Disoriented?

l  Angry?

l  Withdrawn?

l  Suspicious (especially about the destination)?

 Do your best to identify the specific element that brings discomfort, but bear in mind that because Alzheimer’s takes such a great toll on a person’s mental capacity, nailing down the exact cause may not be possible. Fortunately, there are still steps you can take to put your loved one at ease and make car travel an easier process.


Finding Solutions

 A good first step is to give your loved one ample heads-up about any upcoming car trips, even if they are likely to forget. Sometimes it’s the seemingly sudden break from routine that causes a person with Alzheimer’s to dread car travel, so avoid springing a trip on them. Let them know a few days in advance of their upcoming appointment, again the day before, and again the day of the appointment. Try asking if there’s anything they’d like before, during, or after the trip: would your loved one like to bring along a book to read? Perhaps they’d like to go for a stroll in their favorite park afterward or visit a friend nearby. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep, and be wary of overwhelming them — don’t extend any trips if the original errand will surely exhaust or agitate them.


 It’s also important to treat the outing not as an obligation but as something to look forward to, because attitude can be infectious. This is especially important if your loved one is immediately anxious at the notion of leaving the house, even if the event is still days away. Help them see the silver lining:

l  “I know going to the doctor stresses you out, but at least you’ll get to talk to her about the pain you’ve been having so she can help.”

l  “It’s going to be a beautiful day on Wednesday. Won’t it be nice to spend some time out of the house and get some fresh air?”

l  “The trip is a little long, but I know Uncle John will be really happy to see you and catch up.”


Build on anything they are responsive to and reincorporate that idea any time you bring up the errand:

l  “I’m glad we’re going to the doctor tomorrow. I know you’re struggling with your pain, and talking to the doctor will really help us figure out what’s wrong.”

l  “The weather is so gloomy today. I’m looking forward to running errands on Wednesday when it’s nice and sunny.”

l  “This morning I confirmed our trip to see Uncle John. He said he can’t wait to see you!”


 Make sure that your positive energy reads sincere. Talk about the trip with a smile and upbeat tone of voice. It might help to keep some of your own silver linings in mind: perhaps you love visiting the downtown square where you’ll run errands or you plan to catch up on a couple chapters of your book while your loved one visits with family. You don’t necessarily need to mention these personal upsides, but thinking of them when you discuss the trip will help your positivity stay genuine.

 When the day of the trip arrives, prepare the car to meet your loved one’s needs. Clear away any stressful clutter or mess, pack a windshield reflector, and consider hanging window shades if the sun tends to create discomfort. Make sure you know how to use the child safety locks, and consider adding a seat belt lock to prevent your loved one from unbuckling mid-ride. It might help to post a “destination board” somewhere easily visible to them so they can be immediately reminded of where they’re going if they forget. You’ll also want to check and adjust the car’s temperature shortly before leaving to avoid your loved one getting burned on a hot seat or having to shiver in the backseat while the engine warms up.

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 If you’re going somewhere new, call ahead to find out if there’s a special entrance you’ll want to use. This is especially important if your Alzheimer’s loved one has mobility issues, but it can also guide you on where to park to avoid a long walk to the facility. The less stress your loved one feels throughout the trip, the better, so plan ahead to make entering and exiting as seamless as possible.

 Do something relaxing and fun just before the errand: perhaps your loved one enjoys playing cards, being read to, or spending time outside. Bring the activity to a satisfying close — allow enough time to finish the card game rather than stopping midway through, for instance — and then let your loved one know it’s time to get ready to leave. Allow yourself plenty of time; initiate the getting ready process about an hour before you’re due at your destination. This gives your loved one the opportunity to use the restroom, change clothes, put on shoes, grab a snack, and even say hello to the neighbors on the way out the door. Do your best not to rush them unless it’s absolutely necessary; it’s easy for a person with Alzheimer’s to become frustrated or confused if they feel they’re under pressure.

 If your loved one does become agitated, stay positive, but hear out their concerns. Offer to let them choose the music you listen to on the way, bring along a book or magazine to read, or grab a crossword to complete. If they seem distressed about leaving home, bring along their favorite afghan from the couch or a knickknack they hold dear — just keep a close eye to ensure the item doesn’t end up lost or damaged!

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 Agitation sometimes stems from a person with Alzheimer’s simply forgetting how to enter the car; it can be particularly confusing if they’ve only recently quit driving and aren’t used to being a passenger. Offer guidance and assistance as needed, but try to let them do as much as they can for themselves. The safest spot for them to sit is in the backseat on the passenger’s side. This prevents them from reaching the steering wheel should they become upset during the drive, and allows you to see them better without having to turn completely around.

 Having something to keep your loved one occupied during a car trip is always a good idea. Consider having a “go pack” of books, Sudoku puzzles, crocheting supplies, or anything else your loved one enjoys doing at home. Even if they don’t initially seem interested in any of the items, bring it with you every trip and store it where they can reach it during the ride. A person with Alzheimer’s who feels anxious leaving home may appreciate bringing a photo album to look at; try to engage them about the happy memories and encourage them to reminisce. Giving them a sense of familiarity when they’re feeling unsure can help them stay calm.

 If your loved one becomes upset during the car ride, believing that they should be going somewhere else, the safest approach to take is validation. Instead of arguing about where you’re going and why, which could cause the situation to escalate, accept what they say. Talk about why they want to go to that destination, perhaps discussing their past trips there. If they start directing you and argue that you’re driving an incorrect route, simply say you’re going a different way. Your loved one needs to stay as calm as possible while the car is in motion, so appease them in the interest of everyone’s safety.

 It might take time, as well as trial and error, before you find the best routine for car travel with your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Let them be a part of the solution as much as they are able to. Keep up with your travel journal, noting both the good trips and the bad, and be prepared to make adjustments to your process as your loved one’s condition progresses. And never forget to show your loved one patience, compassion, and compromise — they will be some of your most vital tools.

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