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Travelers with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disabilities

The travel press covers flights for unaccompanied minors pretty well, but you seldom read anything about the comparable problem with adults—usually seniors—who suffer from Alzheimer’s or a similar mental impairment. As one reader recently asked, “I have not seen any articles on how to organize an air trip for someone with Alzheimer’s. My mom, who has Alzheimer’s, will soon need to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Denver. How do I do this?”

The problem our reader and many others face is not unlike the problem of arranging travel for unaccompanied minors. In fact, having dealt with parents and in-laws into their late 90s, I’ve concluded that “second childhood” is a clinically accurate description of the condition many seniors experience.

Only one big airline—Northwest—formally recognizes the problems faced by travelers with “cognitive disabilities,” the euphemism du jour for the situation, and provides accordingly; the others either ignore it or provide only minimal assistance. Here’s what I found, checking websites for some of the largest U.S. airlines.

Northwest gets it right

Northwest offers a unique Adult Assistance Program that basically treats adults with cognitive problems in the same way it treats unaccompanied minors. Here’s the full description:

“With counter-to-counter escort service to anyone who wishes to have dedicated assistance while in the care of Northwest Airlines, this program will ensure that your loved one is handled with personal attention during boarding, transfers, layovers, and at the final destination. Northwest Airlines will also provide participants in the Adult Assistance Program supervision during delays or irregular operations and will provide a transfer of custody form for each segment of travel. With the Adult Assistance Program we will work hard so that you can rest easy. Northwest will provide supervision from the time of boarding until participants are met at the final destination. At no time will participants in the Adult Assistance Program be left unsupervised.

“The Adult Assistance Program requires a service fee, $50US/$68CAD for a nonstop flight, $75US/$116CAD for a connecting flight(s), fares one-way. Participation in this program and the services offered are optional. The program is available to adults age 18 and older. The Adult Assist Program offers supervision, escort, and sign-off transfer service similar to the Unaccompanied Minor Service for domestic Northwest, Mesaba and Pinnacle operated flights only. The Adult Assist Program is not offered on international flights.”

This service is limited to assistance in navigating the details and hassles of air travel. It does not include administration of medicines or other procedures that might require the help of medical professionals or full-time attendants.

Unfortunately, no other big airline mentions any sort of similar program, at least publicly, on its website.

The rest don’t get it

Almost all airlines provide information about how they accommodate travelers with “special needs.” For the most part, however, those lines apply that term narrowly to travelers who require wheelchairs or onboard oxygen. Only American, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United even mention cognitive impairment:

  • American puts it this way: “Passengers who require personal or continuous attending care or who are unable to follow safety instructions from our personnel must provide an attendant to travel with them.”
  • JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United pretty much say the same thing: If a traveler is unable to comprehend safety instructions or assist in his/her evacuation in an emergency, that traveler must have an attendant. The airline will not provide one.

The “special needs” online statements from Continental, Delta, and US Airways have nothing to say about cognitively impaired adult travelers—not even a mention of the need for attendants.

What to do

Clearly, Northwest’s program is the ideal answer any time you have to arrange for unaccompanied travel by an individual with Alzheimer’s. If you can arrange the itinerary you need on Northwest, I’d say choosing that line would be a no-brainer. Fortunately for our reader, Northwest offers several options for travel from Ft. Lauderdale to Denver, including one flight that doesn’t even require a plane change.

Given the similarity to the unaccompanied minor case, if Northwest can’t get you where you need to go, you could certainly call one or two other airlines to see if they could provide a similar service.

If you can’t get the airline to provide the level of care you require—or if the traveler requires more than just help coping with the usual hassles—you pretty much have to arrange for an attendant to travel with the impaired adult. Depending on your circumstances, that could be a family member, friend, or acquaintance; in some situations, you might have to hire someone.

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