Can Traveling with Dementia still be Transformative?
As a seasoned traveler I hoped to help my mother heal and experience transformative travel despite her illness
I took a few deep breaths after I loaded my mother into the car for an overnight road trip. The quick trip south with my wheelchair bound 67-year-old bipolar, Hydrocephalus (NPH), and Dementia prone mother had been my idea. A proponent of transformative and healing travel I knew my mother needed some healing, she needed to see outside of the walls of the retirement center. At the same time, I worried if I could handle the commitment I had just made. I am no nurse, and looking after someone is not in my second nature.
We had decided on visiting her friend from high school who lived in a convent in Alhambra, stay overnight somewhere, and then visit the Getty Center. It seemed a simple enough trip. About 13% of Americans over 65 suffer from some form of Dementia, I wondered how many other relatives worried about the long lasting impact of travel on their relatives. I really was unsure if her experiences on the trip would or even could be transformative. Like taking a child on a trip when they were too young to remember, would these experiences mold her long term? Or would the momentary wins be lost in the winds of her fleeting memory? In this trip I hoped to decide if these types of excursions were, in essence, worth it.
Her selection of the Getty was already an impressive decision to me. For years her demeanor has been childlike and I think we all accepted the woman we used to know was not really there anymore. This choice to go see the great painters helped to remind me of the near genius intellect she once had. That there was a creative part of her that remained and could articulate her interest in fine art.
After a few hours in the car we arrived in front of the convent. I negotiated mom’s wheelchair to a place where she could enter the visitation room with just a few steps. The dimly lit brown room held a line of chairs that faced a wall. The wall was about three-foot-high with a series of bars above it, the room on the other side was fully hidden by a drape behind the bars. Brenda’s voice called to us, “Don’t worry I get to move this.” She pulled away the drapes and we saw the small woman in a habit, she excitedly told us “I get to move this too!” gesturing to the bars. “Isn’t that great!” Once all the bars and drapes were pulled back she gave my mother and I a big hug.
In the early 70s, not long after high school, Brenda had decided to become a cloistered nun. My mother had not seen her since. The choice to become a nun was easy for her. She had always wanted to spend her days praying for others. Her smile was kind and loving and her eyes frequently held back tears of joy. She laughed with my mother as they told each other about their lives and recalled their youthful adventures.
I watched the exchanges between these two very different women. They shared their triumphs and tribulations, they laughed at their old memories together. I was impressed my mother could hold a conversation so intelligently. I hadn’t her speak so clearly in years. She shared her grief over her husband’s passing and Brenda shared how she couldn’t hug her father before he died because in those days she couldn’t open the bars. Only two hours from each other and they had only written to each other for the last forty years. Brenda’s eyes teared up again as we discussed how happy were to visit her. My eyes teared up as I thought about how long it would be before we would visit again.
When we left my mother stayed true to herself and insisted on a cigarette. A gorgeous garden surrounded the convent, and I set my mother sat just outside the gates while I went and took pictures of the flowers. I took a look in her direction and saw her shaky hand bringing the butt of the cigarette to her lips. Finally, I headed back to her, she threw the cigarette butt to the ground then stepped on it with one foot until reaching down from the seat of her wheelchair. Once she was satisfied it was out she put it into her purse.
The only wheelchair accessible room I could find was in Anaheim, so we headed there next. With my Hilton rewards card in hand the clerk at the Doubletree greeted us with a smile and a cookie. My mother’s eyes lit up. The clerk then handed us a bottle of water. Cookies and water, my mom was in heaven. Her bright eyes looked up at the hotel clerk “This is my first time away from home in years” She said happily before taking a bite of the cookie. Then she realized it had been an hour since her last cigarette and insisted I help her outside immediately.
I wanted to give her the freedom she lacked at the retirement home, so I left her out there while I prepared the room. Worrying the whole time that she would roll away or a stranger would entice her. As if she was a child I’d left in a bad neighborhood. Fifteen minutes later I peered out the window and saw her finishing her second cigarette. She hadn’t run away or disappeared. She hadn’t broken out in tears or forgot where she was. She navigated the hotel easily and I was impressed how quickly she acclimated to the large space.
The next day we headed to the Getty. I wondered how accurate the wheelchair friendly reviews were. After about an hour of a riding in the tram, a cigarette break, and stop in the cafe for lunch we finally got ourselves situated in front of the art work. I let her set our pace. She used the audio guide with great concentration. I wondered what was she thinking? She looked for minutes at the different pictures. On occasion she would wheel up to the tiny white placard next to the painting and read it. I was amazed that she was looking at these critically, she was appreciating the art, she was letting it wash over her.
We came to one room with an interactive iPad exhibit and I watched her navigate herself to each display and use the iPad to learn about the piece from the Louis XIV collection. After a few hours of touring she announced she was tired and ready to go. I insisted we see the gardens before we left. The garden was not as easy to navigate as the rest of the museum and eventually I had to leave her in a main area while I quickly took a look at the rest. I wanted her to join for all of it but in the wheelchair getting to and leaving the garden required cautiously braking her wheelchair down a series of ramps. And then pushing her up them with all my strength when we were finished. It was an energy consumer for us both and we left the garden for the car both weary.
Now we just had dinner and the ride home left. We stopped for dinner in Santa Clarita and mom finally got to order the meatloaf and mash potatoes. She had been excited about it the whole trip as it was the meal she had craved and could not cook for herself anymore.
The sun had begun to set as we got back in the car for the final leg of our journey. She was anxious to get back to her bed and because of the garden walk I insisted on we would get back even later than I’d anticipated. It was hard for me to gauge her thoughts about the experiences she had over the two days and I don’t know if the trip will stay with her, but I know it will stay with Brenda and I know it will stay with me. I know I enjoyed giving her advice about men, hearing about her friends, and sharing stories about our lives.
As the car arced over the Grapevine and the entire San Joaquin valley lay before us in lines of lights. My mother turned to me and said, “Amanda, it’s funny, I have never felt younger in my whole life than I do right now.”