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Sky Harbor Airport hosts dementia air travel training workshop for caregivers

Coverage of aging is supported in part by AARP Arizona

Traveling can be stressful in the best of circumstances. Now, imagine boarding a packed flight or clearing customs with a loved one who has dementia. It can be challenging. A workshop being offered at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on dementia-friendly air travel can help.

Tony Aitoro and partner Patricia Mueller used to travel together, but "I do not travel anymore," he said. "But my honey does with her daughter."

Mueller is struggling with her memory, though she has yet to get a diagnosis. Still, she wants to visit her kids. 

"I have always had a person with me and this time, I can't. So, that's why I'm so worried," she explained.

So, they’re here at this workshop hosted by Sky Harbor Airport.

"She’s having anxiety because, once again, it's the first time that she's totally traveling alone since this illness. Before, she never thought of it, ‘Fine, I'll go wherever,’ and she did," Aitoro said.

"I did," echoed Mueller.

Misty Cisneros Contreras is with Sky Harbor, which is designated as a dementia-friendly airport. She says this workshop highlights resources for caregivers and their loved ones. 

"We have our Compassion Cacti Lanyard program, which is a self identifying program for those with hidden disabilities," she explained.

Like a dementia or traumatic brain injury. You can also request a volunteer navigator.

"And they will guide you all through your experience and get you to your gate, answering any questions pointing out where adult changing tables might be, family restrooms, if you need a wheelchair, where to get those sorts of things," she added.

Susan Mark's husband has dementia and Parkinson's. She says a big challenge when traveling is the bathroom situation.

"I'm afraid I'll send him in and he won't come out. That's my big problem. Or, that he will wander off," she said.

So she's here hoping to learn about what resources exist.

"You know, is there a separate restroom? Like the family restroom. We could use a quiet place where we could sit. Things like that," Mark said.

Sky Harbor is one of almost 30 airports with adult changing spaces

Also attending the workshop were two pups, Cane and Cooper. Both dogs can be spotted with their volunteer handlers at Sky Harbor. Their job? Just to be loved.

"These are actually the only dogs in the airport that their job is to be petted," said Cisneros Contreras. "And so it says, 'Pet Me' on their uniforms because most other dogs that work in the airport, you're not supposed to touch — TSA dogs, police dogs — they're there for a certain purpose. And so are these dogs."

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TravALZ tips for caregivers

  • Remember, travel increases everyone's stress.
  • Plan for added assistance from the time you begin your travel.
  • Airline — request a wheelchair, early boarding, seating assignment, noting disability.
  • Drop off/pick up to/from the airport — get a ride and drop off right at departure area; pick up in baggage claim.
  • Securing an added travel companion if needed.
  • Arriving early at the airport.
  • Looking at the airport website of departing/connecting/arrival cities.
  • Look for family restrooms, quiet locations, airline clubs, other amenities.
  • Security - use TSA Cares and Companion Card.
  • Take your time.

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Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.