Nothing has stopped Juanita and Bob Wellington from traveling — not even Alzheimer's.
"I was very fortunate because once I was diagnosed in 2010, I bypassed all the other steps and went right to acceptance," Bob, 76, says. "I accept that I have Alzheimer's and the trials and tribulations that come with it."
And so does Juanita, which is why the Tacoma, Washington, couple decided not to let the disease keep them from doing what they love. Instead, they have learned how to make simple adjustments so that they can keep exploring the world even as Bob's condition worsens.
During their 50-plus years together, they have traveled to a total of 78 countries and islands, and even lived abroad in Germany for four years in the early 70s. Juanita creates photo books of each of their trips, and since Bob's diagnosis, the books have become even more significant.
"I want to help create good memories, which is why I take pictures and make little scrapbooks," Juanita says.
"These pictures she diligently puts in photo albums — these will be memories for me as the years go on," Bob adds.
Juanita and Bob have visited every U.S. capital and every continent except for Antarctica, and already have two cruises planned for 2016: One around the African coast and the other around the Mediterranean. They're looking forward to many more adventures and will continue to follow their own advice for traveling with Alzheimer's. Read their tips below.
How to Make Traveling With Dementia a Relaxing and Rewarding Experience for Everyone
"There are so many different myths and perceptions about Alzheimer's disease," says Monica Moreno, director of early stage initiatives for the Alzheimer's Association. "When people hear someone has been diagnosed, they immediately go to the end stage of the disease — a person who may be in a wheelchair, who is unaware of their surroundings, who can't communicate. But the reality is there are a large group of people who are in the early stage of the disease, like Bob, who can still live meaningful and productive lives and continue to do the things they love, such as travel."
Here's how to ensure a smooth and safe trip:
1. Plan and Pack Ahead
Moreno stresses the importance of planning in advance and making a detailed trip itinerary to reduce anxiety for everyone involved. "Outline all of the logistics of the trip in one document — your rental car information, hotel, airfare," she says. "It really can be helpful to the care partner because they don't have to ruffle through papers to figure out where they need to be."
Another important item to include on the travel to-do list: emergency contact information. "Share this itinerary with friends and family so that they know exactly where you're going to be, in case you'll need some assistance during the trip," Moreno adds.
Also, don't leave home without copies of legal papers, as well as a few extra days worth of meds. "There may be delays or unforeseen changes in plans, and having the extra set of medications on hand will allow the individual to stay on schedule," Moreno says.
2. Keep It Simple
Part of the beauty of vacation is relaxing, so this part shouldn't be too difficult.
"We've toned it down a bit," Juanita says. "For example, we used to try to see everything possible in one day, but now we'll go on half-day tours."
She also monitors Bob's energy and stress levels in order to keep him from becoming over-tired, which can bring on anxiety.
"Instead of running around like we used to, sometimes we'll sit at a sidewalk café and people-watch, which is much more relaxing," Bob adds.
If flying is on your agenda, Morena advises avoiding peak travel hours — usually mornings — when airports tend to be the most hectic.
"The excess stimulation from the crowds, especially during the holiday season, can be really distracting and overwhelming for a person living with Alzheimer's," she says.
3. Establish a Routine
Perhaps the most important travel tip Juanita and Bob have discovered is keeping things as routine as possible, from meal and sleep schedules to surroundings. For example, Bob explains that even though their vacation itinerary will differ from trip to trip, he finds comfort in sailing on the same cruise line.
"The familiarity with the layout of the ship and the way they conduct the tours really helps me to get the most that I can out of traveling," he says. "If things change, it becomes a little more difficult for me."
Juanita agrees. "And it's comfortable to come back every night after being on shore to have a familiar bed and a familiar meal in familiar surroundings."
4. Be Open With Others
Juanita and Bob are honest with their fellow travelers about his condition. "We'll explain that it takes him longer to make decisions about the menu and we ask that those in a conversation give him time to keep up," Juanita says. "It's easy for someone living with Alzheimer's just to listen and not be able to follow because people can talk so fast."
Although it may not seem like proper travel etiquette, telling people about Bob's disease is incredibly smart, Morena adds. Discussing the symptoms, along with the successful strategies that have worked to help reduce those behaviors, can be beneficial for everyone.
"We want to make sure that when people are traveling — particularly around the holidays and in a setting with their family — that they really feel welcome and they're embraced," Moreno explains. "We want to help families create an environment that allows the person to feel [like a] part of those festivities."
5. Stay Safe
It's important to implement safety measures in the event that a wandering incident occurs. There are two tools that have been created for that exact reason: The MedicAlert + Alzheimer's Association Safe Return program — a 24-hour emergency response service that alerts local Alzheimer's Association chapters and law enforcement agencies of a missing person — and the Alzheimer's Association Comfort Zone — a comprehensive web-based GPS location management service that enables families to monitor a loved one.
"We've heard from both people with the disease and their caregivers, and these programs give them an added sense of safety, knowing that these types of strategies are in place," Moreno says.