Flying with dementia: Why the UK needs dementia friendly airports

  • 14 Oct, 2016
  • Franki Napolitano

Flying with dementia: Why the UK needs dementia friendly airports

Last month, it was announced that London Heathrow is set to become the World’s first Dementia Friendly Airport. This will mean all 76,000 staff will be trained to help passengers with what is referred to as a ‘Hidden Disability’, mainly dementia.

What is dementia?

The term dementia refers to symptoms experienced as a result of disease to the brain. It can present itself in several ways, the most common being memory loss, and difficulties with communicating and problem solving.

The effects of dementia can range from the person becoming frustrated and confused by seemingly normal day to day activities, to having to rely on a loved one or carer to look after them when they can no longer do said activities, or even remember who they are.Rob Stewart quote, dementia society,

It’s also worth mentioning that there are several forms of dementia that affect the brain in different ways; Alzheimer’s, dementia with Lewy Bodies and both Vascular and Frontal-temporal dementia are the four of the most common.

Dementia Friendly Airports

The news from Heathrow got us thinking about the current experience had by those flying with dementia; both those with the condition themselves and their travel companions.

We set out to see what UK airports currently have in place and with the help of several dementia related charities and services, we surveyed the public on their thoughts, experience and knowledge of flying with dementia.

Dementia and Airports, what are airports doing

It’s nice to see that it’s almost a 50/50 split between those that have something in place and those that have a little catching up to do – it could be worse…!

So, who’s doing what?

The airports

Aside from Heathrow‘s training Programme, inspired by Dementia Awareness week in May this year, Gatwick trialled a lanyard scheme for those travelling with hidden disabilities. These are voluntarily worn by those who feel they may need extra assistance or to simply alert staff that they may need a little extra time or patience shown at security or passport control.

Next up, Luton announced that as part of their 2016 commitments, they would have at least 40% of the airport staff undergo Dementia Friends training by the end of the year… Watch this space..!

I think there needs to be more help available and more training for people in the travel industry and airports, such as becoming dementia friends

Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and Bristol have all stated that this year, either representatives from the airport or small selections of staff have attended Dementia Friends talks or focus groups with charities to establish what they need to implement to better their services.

Earlier this year, the staff at World Duty Free in Stansted hosted an “Orange Day” in conjunction with Alzheimer’s Research UK. The project aims to raise at least £150,000 to fund the Dementia Research Infoline. Meanwhile, Aberdeen awarded part of its 2015 Airport Community Fund to Alzheimer Scotland.

The support organisations

Many of the survey responses mentioned the need for Dementia Friends at airports so we asked Roshni Jaura from Vida to explain who Dementia Friends are and why they would be a beneficial service for airports to offer.

Roshni Jaura explains Dementia Freinds

We also spoke to Rob Stewart from Alzheimer’s Society about how the organisation is working with various UK Airports to raise dementia awareness and how they are continuing to  support the efforts of Heathrow and Gatwick as they lead the way;

Rob Stewart from Alzheimer's Society

It’s not just air travel that can be daunting; here Scottish Dementia Working Group give you a run down of their top travelling tips for various modes of public transport.

Can you travel with dementia?

Of course you can, however, you don’t need us to tell you that taking holidays in the earlier stages of dementia is easiest as severe cases may cause more hurt and frustration for all parties involved.

How do you think people with dementia feel when they travel?

We initially thought that the travel market for people with dementia and their companions was almost non-existent and as we expected, 93% of those we surveyed knew nothing about travel options available to those with dementia and unsurprisingly, 97% of respondents felt that those with dementia are too put off by possible complications to want to travel abroad.

“Yes – much less likely. Travelling can be too overwhelming and stressful for both the person with dementia and their carer/ family member. Travelling alone also becomes fraught with confronting issues”

However, we were pleasantly surprised after a little research showed us exactly what’s out there.

Across the UK, you’ll find several travel options available to you. Companies such as Mind for You, Amy’s Care and Revitalise offer supported holiday schemes in which you can choose to have time apart from your loved one, while their trained professionals take over the care for a while.

If you’re still able to be a little active, Dementia Adventure run a selection of group breaks around the UK, including boat trips and coastal treks.

Is there enough awareness about dementia friendly travel options?

If you’re looking at heading overseas,  Disabled Holidays Abroad, Disability Holidays Guide and Can Be Done all specialise in disabled travel across the world and can help you arrange your dream break, whilst Cinnamon Grove specialise in dementia care and has become Sri Lanka’s first European standard assisted living facility .

“At the present time I am reasonably happy to travel any distance (including to our children and grand-children, who all live in Australia; I am lucky in that my husband would be able to guide me if, for example, I was in danger of finding the female toilets in Heathrow Airport”

Should you travel?

You should always be aware of the risks that may be involved with flying with dementia. An article  entitled “Fear of Flying” written by Dr Gianetta Rands, Specialist in Dementias and Mental Capacity at Re:Cognition Health, suggests that “flights with current cabin environments may challenge mental and physical health” due to reduced air pressure and lower humidity. “This can cause dehydration, hypovolaemia and reduced peripheral circulation” thus meaning the body and brain receives less oxygen than usual, and could accentuate the cognitive difficulties experienced by the person with dementia.

Real life experiences

We gave our respondents the opportunity to tell us about their personal experiences in airports and onboard flights. Generally, airport experiences were far less positive then those in flight;

Experiences of travelling through airports with dementia

It was also noted that flying was deemed too stressful for both the person with dementia and the people caring for them. When asked if they thought there was a lot of frustration surrounding airports and the apparent lack of concern and knowledge of dementia, our respondents strongly felt that this was the case.

People do not appreciate why someone may be acting in a way that they do not consider appropriate. There are very strict procedures which can be quite hard to understand” and “Not just airports but the method of getting to them at each end“.

Respondents who had dementia themselves told us that they feel they should be entitled to fast track at security as the queuing can cause more stress and confusion,  as do the bright lights and music within terminals.

“Being crowded, pushed around and rushed, especially by staff, is very frightening” 

Comments from carers included pointing out the rudeness, aggressive behaviour and apparent lack of consideration shown by airport staff, especially at security or when using e-passport gates. In these cases, this lead to the embarrassment and confusion of the person they are caring for, making them upset or panicky.

“It is the atmosphere of rush that creates anxiety, being asked questions and feeling unable to get the answer out. We only travel through local airports now as the large ones are just too stressful.”

Top tips for travelling with dementia

We gathered a lot of extremely useful information from our respondents; be it on experiences, insight into the level of awareness within the community and most importantly, suggestions on how processes could be improved. We feel that the concerns, thoughts and feelings are all extremely valuable and makes it clear that the steps that Heathrow and Gatwick are taking are in the right direction.

With that in mind, we’ll leave you with a collection of helpful tips which were collected via our survey, through our insights into open UK based chat forums and with the help of Maria and Nicole and their survey results conducted on behalf of The Australian Journal of DementiaCare, all of which you may find useful, and hopefully, encouraging.

Tips for travelling with dementia

We would like to thank all of those that helped us with our research into this article, especially those who took our survey and the organisations who offered their expertise and insider knowledge.

We are passionate about bringing issues with travelling such as this to light and are excited to be in talks with Ian Sherriff, Academic Lead for dementia at Plymouth University, and chair to the PM’s air transport group, about his involvement in helping airports and airlines become dementia friendly. We are keen to see if our article can compliment his continued efforts when he visits the house of commons for his quarterly meeting later this year – watch this space!

On a final note,  if you are interested to know, below, you will find a summary of our survey findings.

Airports and Dementia survey results

About Franki Napolitano

I love to Blog, Read and Sight-See, although you'll usually find me in the Gym!

11 responses to “Flying with dementia: Why the UK needs dementia friendly airports”

  1. My husband finds Security the most stressful. It would be helpful if there was a dedicated Security for those with dementia and other disabilities in a quieter area ( maybe to the side of the main area).
    I found this article very helpful as we are travelling from Edinburgh to Australia with a stop and extra security checks at Doha and my husband is very anxious.

  2. Thank goodness airports are starting to acknowledge the problems at airports for the people affected by dementia. Even those with the very first stages of dementia need help and assistance.

  3. Glad airports have begun this journey. Just wish Gatwick had advertised their lanyard scheme so my husband could have used it when flying to Canada in September. Everytime Imasked for assistance was offered a wheelchair. Just needed a quiet place to wait (paid for no 1 lounge) and someone to guide us to our gate to alleviate my husband’s anxieties that I didn’t know where I was going. Also on return trying to guide him through scanning his passport was a nightmare.

  4. Just discovered this page. Wish I had known the information. I have given up flying with my husband now.
    Security was the biggest nightmare even when I told the staff at Heathrow terminal 2 at Xmas 2016. Also at Gatwick and Belfast in 2016. I do hope people begin to understand the problem carers also have, such as what do you do with the cared for when you use the toilet facilities apart from both of you in the disabled loo in the airport.

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