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Efforts Underway at U.S. Airports to Facilitate Travel for Individuals with Dementia

by Michael Nguyen
8 comments
Dementia-Friendly Air Travel

Andrea Nissen is grappling with the complex task of preparing her 65-year-old spouse, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, for a lone journey from Arizona to Oklahoma for a family visit. She is concerned that his absent-mindedness or tendency to invade personal spaces may be misconstrued by both fellow passengers and airport staff. Her inability to accompany him adds to her apprehensions.

“Letting him travel alone when he has dementia is not advisable,” caution many, according to Nissen.

Her concerns, however, were alleviated somewhat after attending a workshop in July that focused on dementia-friendly travel. The event educated her on services provided at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and the aid that airlines can extend upon request.

The initiative was a first for Phoenix, placing it among a growing number of U.S. cities pledging to make air travel more accommodating for those with cognitive impairments.

As millions of people prepare to travel for the Labor Day weekend, a segment among them will inevitably be individuals struggling with dementia or other cognitive challenges. Over the past few years, almost a dozen U.S. airports, including those in Phoenix and Kansas City, have taken steps to create a more dementia-friendly environment. Amenities such as quiet rooms and simulation centers have been introduced, where individuals with dementia can either learn about air travel or refresh their memory.

Navigating through gates, recalling flight timings, or comprehending instructions from Transportation Security Administration agents in crowded lines can be overwhelming for someone with dementia. Symptoms like forgetfulness could wrongly be attributed to alcohol or drug influence.

However, major U.S. airports lag in comparison to some of their counterparts in Australia and Europe in catering to this demographic. According to Sara Barsel, founder of the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group, the absence of legal mandates like those in the Americans with Disabilities Act leaves the onus on the airports to make voluntary changes. Barsel conjectures that revenue generation might be a factor inhibiting the rollout of more amenities like quiet rooms or adult changing tables in family restrooms.

In 2018, experts in the field of dementia and Alzheimer’s founded the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group. Their efforts led to the adoption of programs like the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard initiative, which originated at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2016 and is now available in over 200 airports globally. These light green lanyards adorned with a sunflower pattern allow passengers to discreetly signify that they or their companions may require extra assistance.

Among the earliest airports to collaborate with the group was Montana’s Missoula Airport, which became a certified “sensory inclusive” facility in March. The airport took steps to address lighting, floor design, and noise issues, and also adopted the sunflower lanyard program.

Unfortunately, not all experiences have been positive. Candice Kirkwood of Indianapolis recounts a devastating episode from 2001 involving her parents at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, went missing and was found deceased six years later, a tragedy that led to a legal settlement with American Airlines.

The Dallas Fort Worth International Airport has, however, taken steps to implement the sunflower lanyard program, with training planned for frontline employees and volunteer ambassadors.

Jan Dougherty, a registered nurse who led the Phoenix workshop, argues that with adequate support, travel can be safe for those with dementia. As the number of Americans reaching retirement age increases, the necessity for such accommodations will only become more urgent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 10 million adults aged 65 or older will have dementia by 2060. More than 6 million people across the nation are currently living with Alzheimer’s, a figure projected to double by 2050.

Carol Giuliani, a member of the airports working group and travel companion for senior citizens with dementia, attests to the burgeoning need for such services. She notes the overwhelming gratitude from families who employ her to accompany their loved ones, emphasizing the importance of making air travel safer and more comfortable for this vulnerable population.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Dementia-Friendly Air Travel

What is the primary focus of this article?

The article primarily focuses on the efforts made by U.S. airports to create a more dementia-friendly travel environment. It discusses the challenges faced by individuals with dementia and their caregivers, while also highlighting initiatives aimed at making air travel more accessible and comfortable for this demographic.

Who is Andrea Nissen and why is she mentioned?

Andrea Nissen is a woman preparing her 65-year-old husband, who has Alzheimer’s, for a solo flight. She is mentioned to exemplify the challenges and apprehensions caregivers and family members face when assisting someone with dementia in air travel.

What amenities are airports introducing to become more dementia-friendly?

Airports are introducing amenities like quiet rooms and simulation centers. These centers help travelers with dementia either learn about the travel process or refresh their memory before flying.

What is the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group?

The Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group is an organization founded in 2018 by experts in the field of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The group lobbies for the creation of dementia-inclusive policies in airports and airlines.

How many U.S. airports have become more dementia-friendly?

The article states that nearly a dozen U.S. airports, including those in Phoenix and Kansas City, have taken steps in recent years to become more dementia-friendly.

What is the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard program?

Originating at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2016, the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard program allows individuals with dementia or other less-visible disabilities to wear a light green lanyard adorned with a sunflower pattern. This serves as a discreet indication to airport and airline personnel that the individual may require additional assistance.

How does U.S. airport accessibility for travelers with dementia compare globally?

Most major U.S. airports are behind their counterparts in Australia and Europe in terms of providing dementia-friendly facilities. One of the reasons cited is the absence of a legal mandate, as dementia is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What is the future need for dementia-friendly travel accommodations?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10 million adults aged 65 or older will have dementia by 2060. The growing number of Americans reaching retirement age will make the need for dementia-friendly travel accommodations increasingly urgent.

Who is Carol Giuliani?

Carol Giuliani is a member of the airports working group who serves as a travel companion for senior citizens with dementia. She emphasizes the increasing demand for such services and notes the gratitude expressed by families who hire her.

What is the tragic story of Candice Kirkwood’s mother?

Candice Kirkwood’s mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, went missing at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in 2001 while traveling with her husband. Her remains were found six years later, and her disappearance led to a lawsuit that was settled with American Airlines. The tragedy underscores the urgency of creating a more inclusive and safe travel environment for individuals with cognitive impairments.

More about Dementia-Friendly Air Travel

  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s: An Overview
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Dementia Statistics
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: Legal Framework
  • Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard Program
  • The Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group: About Us
  • Alzheimer’s Association: Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures
  • Australian Airports: Dementia-Friendly Initiatives
  • European Airports: Inclusive Travel Policies
  • Transportation Security Administration: Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions
  • Senior Citizens Travel Companion Services: An Emerging Market
  • Missoula Montana Airport: Sensory Inclusive Certification

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8 comments

Tom Daniels September 1, 2023 - 8:26 pm

Seems like US is lagging behind Europe and Australia in this area. We need to catch up, it’s about dignity and respect.

Reply
Alan Turner September 1, 2023 - 9:58 pm

quiet rooms and simulation centers sound like good ideas but how many airports actually have them? article says ‘nearly a dozen’ but that’s a drop in the bucket.

Reply
Mike Johnson September 2, 2023 - 1:01 am

Wow, never thought about the challenges of flying with dementia. Really eye-opening stuff here.

Reply
Sarah Williams September 2, 2023 - 1:15 pm

I wish more airports would do something like this. My grandma has Alzheimer’s, and the thought of her traveling alone scares me. Good to know there are ppl working to make things better.

Reply
Sophie Miller September 2, 2023 - 4:04 pm

Kudos to the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group. Hope they get more support, both from the public and legislators.

Reply
Emily Brown September 2, 2023 - 5:00 pm

Can’t believe dementia isn’t covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. What’s up with that? Need to change, ASAP.

Reply
Dave Lee September 2, 2023 - 6:34 pm

Just heartbreaking to read about Candice Kirkwood’s mom. No one should go through something like that. We gotta do better.

Reply
Rachel Green September 2, 2023 - 6:52 pm

Great read. It’s high time airports and airlines start taking this seriously. Demographics are changing and they better adapt.

Reply

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