AARP Eye Center
When I suggested to my family that we to go to Florida’s Sanibel and Captiva Islands last December, they jumped at the idea. My parents, who are both in their mid-80s, had spent a few weeks on Sanibel each winter for about 10 years, so it was familiar. And it seemed like an ideal destination for a relaxing trip, where we could be joined by my sisters — Tricia, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and Jennie, who’s based in Raleigh, North Carolina. There are hundreds of condos stretched along the islands’ shell-packed beaches, but nothing feels crowded. Tennis, water sports, beach walking and reading by the shore are the primary activities between eating and drinking. I’d join them from my home in Northern California.
Three years ago, when my father was diagnosed with dementia, we started taking my mother away from their Bay Village, Ohio, home for a short annual break from caregiving for my dad. She loved seeing Hamilton in New York, then enjoyed Charleston and its Southern charm and fabulous food the next year. This year, we thought, we would bring Dad; maybe it would bring back memories, and he would feel comfortable in a place he once loved.
AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.
By now my father’s cognitive decline was full-blown Alzheimer’s; his increasing memory loss meant his disease was progressing rapidly. But my father was still quite mobile, and his doctor wasn’t concerned about his flying to join us on vacation. And Dad seemed to like the idea when we explained it — repeatedly, due to his memory loss. I grabbed the calendar he checked several times a day and filled it with notations like “two weeks till Sanibel” and “beach coming soon.” He seemed to understand that we were going to one of his favorite haunts.
The day finally arrived. Except for the brisk removal of a mask that sent my dad’s $7,000 hearing aids flying across the airport floor, everyone arrived with little incident (my mom and sister were both on hand to assist him), and we settled in. As we soon found out, the best place to be was at our condo on the beach. We had a handful of meals at restaurants but mostly cooked our own, and those meals turned out better than the food we could find at local tourist spots.
Dementia Caregiver's Guide
The latest advice and resources to help you and your loved ones navigate a diagnosis.
There were disappointments, though. Dad did not really want to walk on the beach and needed to use the restroom frequently. And while we had hopes that his memory cloud might lift during this getaway, they were dashed every morning when he woke up and asked where he was (the first of dozens of times throughout the day). Except for two hilarious nights when he was as clear and funny as he used to be, we spent a lot of time answering his endless questions and trying to keep him engaged.
Traveling? Pack these documents
Before you depart, make sure you have the following items for your loved one:
- Doctors’ names and contact information
- A list of current medications and dosages
- A list of food or drug allergies
- Names and contact information of friends and family members to call in case of an emergency
- Health insurance information
Source: The Alzheimer’s Association
It helped to maintain a sense of humor. One day he woke up and announced that he knew why he was in Florida: “I’m a travel writer, and I am here to do a story on this place,” he declared to my mother, who surely did not keep a straight face.
The bottom line is that it was not the idyllic family vacation we’d hoped for, but it was, nevertheless, fantastic to be together, read on the beach, cook crazy meals and spend time with Dad. He seemed to enjoy himself, at least sometimes; he was more talkative than he is at home, and he reminisced about the trip a bit for a few weeks after returning home.
And we learned a few things. For one, next time we will bring Dad’s dog, Arnie — his touchstone, his pal, his responsibility. He needs my mother in sight at all times, too, but Arnie can be the dam that holds back his moments of panic. We also need to keep sports magazines on hand as a diversion and bring loads of patience.
More on Dementia
How Therapeutic Fibbing and Diversion Can Help Loved Ones with Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Tactics to comfort, alleviate stress and meet individuals in ‘their reality’
Why Caregivers Should Confront Rather Than Avoid a Dementia Diagnosis
Don’t let fear prevent you from taking steps that may help your loved one
6 Ways to Prevent Someone With Dementia From Getting Lost
Steps family caregivers can take to keep loved ones safe