Travelling with someone who has dementia - Katherine's story

Holidays can be challenging when you have a family member living with dementia. Read Katherine's story of travelling to India with her father, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Exploring tourist sites, enjoying warmer weather or relaxing somewhere new is often something to look forward to.

But for many, the prospect of going on holiday with a loved one who is living with dementia can be very daunting. Here, Katherine shares her own experience of travelling abroad with her family, and provides insight into the challenges they faced.

Katherine and her dad in Jaipur

Katherine and her father in Jaipur, India

I recently went on a family holiday to India, which sounds simple enough. But there were a few reasons I was a little bit apprehensive when packing my bags.

For starters, I haven’t been on a ‘family’ holiday since I was in my teens. I was also bringing along my recently-acquired husband. He’s been around for ages but the title is new.

However, the main reason for the flicker of anxiety was that we were going with my dad.

Dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease almost two years ago and his dementia has progressed significantly in this short time.

My parents have always been adventurous travellers. They usually set off with a cheery wave and a reminder about where their wills were stored.

This has changed since the diagnosis. After a couple of frightening disappearing acts that involved police searches in Mexico and then Sri Lanka, my mum decided that they couldn’t travel alone together anymore.

This was another heart-breaking milestone along this new path of ours, but my brother and I didn’t want them to stop doing what they loved. Over the years, my parents had talked about how they’d love to take us to India. My brother and I thought - it’s now or never.

Planning ahead

We decided between the four of us we’d be able to keep Dad safe, but it was still a bit of a gamble. To help manage the risks as much as possible, we adapted the trip.

We stayed in one place for the first week so Dad could get his bearings. By getting in touch with people who had stayed at the hotel previously, we were able to ascertain that it did have a walled garden and a lockable front door!

We had a wonderful trip and we returned with Dad safely in tow. There were definitely times when we questioned why we had decided to come to one of the most bustling and chaotic parts of the world with someone who now struggles with spatial awareness.

I can’t even begin to count the number of close-calls we had crossing roads (motorways), falling out of tuk tuks, being chased by dogs and cows and just walking down the street. Some of these close-calls were extremely stressful to witness. Other times you had to laugh and remember we had really good travel insurance.

Katherine Gray and family at the Taj Mahal

Katherine with her brother, mum, dad, and husband at the Taj Mahal

Making memories

It was a jam-packed and exhausting trip for all of us. There was so much to see and do and we were greedy to do as much as we could.

We experienced countless forts and temples, walking tours, bus trips, tuk tuk rides, flowers, wonderful food, shopping trips, museums, train journeys, campfire dancing, and even a leopard safari. The only thing my dad didn’t do with us was the sunset camel ride. All five of us agreed that was a no-brainer!

I think my dad enjoyed himself. He comes and goes in this world and can often drift somewhere else for a while. The odd remark did make us question his understanding of where he was, but Dad seemed content and happy to have us all around him. This was when we weren’t constantly yanking him out of the road or steering him to safety.

There is an innate generosity and empathy in the human spirit that crosses borders.

We also learnt that despite language barriers and a lack of understanding about dementia, there is an innate generosity and empathy in the human spirit that crosses borders.

There were guides that instinctively knew to take my dad by the hand when crossing the road. There was the lovely man in a jewellery shop who shed a tear with my mum about how my dad’s eyes looked just like his father’s. With so few words, there was a deep, shared understanding of what we were going through as a family.

I don’t think my dad was able to make many new memories on that trip. But in those moments when he was truly with us, he knew he was loved and doing what he loved. The memories were for us to keep. The memories of him being there with us.

Discover more

  • Read our comprehensive guide to holidays and travelling. It covers tips for travel, knowing your rights and lists useful organisations offering supported holidays for people with dementia.
  • For further help and advice, our National Dementia Helpline advisers are available on 0300 222 11 22.
National Dementia Helpline
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9 comments

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Wonderfully written x

How brave and special to support your parents on this amazing trip to exotic, bustling India. I enjoyed reading about moments you shared with generous and open people. What an amazing time for you and your family. However hair-raising at times, I think you will always be so grateful you made this happen, and spent this time with your father, and mother, helping them do what they always loved - travelling. It's a lovely touching story.

A very wonderful article!

We are a Charity offering subsidised and supported holidays for people with dementia and their carers and families to enjoy together, and as such we are able to help people to achieve breaks together both in the UK and abroad.

We think it is really important to enable people with dementia to remain in contact with the people, places and experiences that have kept them well and given them joy, and we have the collected expertise here to make this possible, along with trained volunteers who also want to help.

We are listed in the "Useful Organisations" section of the factsheet if anyone would like any more information.

And Katherine, if you'd like to get your parents to get in touch with us, maybe we can help them get away more regularly and give you the peace of mind that we are looking out for them, just as you would yourself! We offer everything from Walking in the Lake District to visiting the Eden Project in Cornwall, and are offering our first holiday abroad to Portugal this year.

Thank you for writing this great article and calling people's attention to the fact that holidays are still really beneficial for families living with dementia.

You said something which really struck a chord with me: "...in those moments when he was truly with us, he knew he was loved and doing what he loved." I have come to learn that the value of this is not to be underestimated, as although our loved one may not be able to respond appropriately to what is going on and to verbalise their feelings, it definately does not mean they don't feel it.

I'm sure your Dad truly appreciated this special trip which you all planned together, even if those memories aren't saved in the 'hard drive' for him. We have to do the best we can at each stage of this disease and you all did a lovely thing for him as a family.

Very well put Nuala!

Late stage sufferers can often appear distant, unaware and certainly cannot articulate what they are feeling. They may fall asleep and not respond in any detectable way but keep on treated them with dignity, talk to them, sing to them, make jokes and remind them of the good times and the things in the past they enjoyed.

Above all do not give up in looking after them in a compassionate loving way and never deny them access to social interaction.

Wonderful that you were able to include him on a family holiday

Katherines families experience is heart warming. It is a pointer and a reminder that the location is not as important as the experiences it offers and creates.
We take my mum who lives with Alzheimers with us on UK holidays. There will always be moments that generate a mixture of emotions. Yet the person you love knows they are loved and there are times when we all looking through the same window at life and sharing our happiness and love with each other.
It is always refreshing to hear of other people's positive experiences.

I also took holidays with my late husband. I lost him in Melbourne he was picked up by the police and brought to my hotel about three hours later.
Next time he got separated from me in venice, no patrol cars there, the cruise ship was almost ready to sail, as luck would have it I saw him strolling in the crowd.
So I decided the time was to take day trips in England.

Katherine thank you so much for sharing . I live in India and my mother is in a advanced stage of Dementia which she has suffering for the past three years . Believe me when I say it boosted my morale after reading about your travels in India . You have a great support system for your father , all your family members including your husband . I fold my hands offering them my humble " Namaste" ( gratitude) . Having seen my mother's own suffering from Dementia , I can understand the amount of sacrifices you all had to make not only for the Indian visit but for all time to come . God Bless

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