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U.S. Airports Aim to Create a More Inclusive Flying Experience for People with Dementia

Andrea Nissen is preparing her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, for a solo flight from Arizona to Oklahoma. She worries about travelers and airport officials not understanding his condition and feels guilty for not being able to accompany him. But attending a dementia-friendly travel workshop has helped ease some of those fears. The workshop highlighted the resources available at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and the assistance airlines can provide. Phoenix is among several U.S. cities that have pledged to make flying more accessible for people with dementia.

Nearly a dozen airports across the country have modified their facilities and operations to be more dementia-friendly. They have implemented amenities like quiet rooms and simulation centers where travelers with dementia can learn about flying or get a refresher. These airports recognize that tasks such as finding the gate, remembering flight times, and following commands from security agents can overwhelm someone with dementia. Furthermore, symptoms like forgetting words can be mistaken for intoxication.

However, most large U.S. airports are lagging behind their counterparts in Australia and Europe when it comes to serving travelers with dementia. Dementia is not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means there is no legal obligation for airports to make changes. This lack of obligation may be one of the reasons why there are fewer quiet spaces or family restrooms with adult changing tables in airports. These accommodations do not generate revenue, according to Sara Barsel, founder of the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group.

In an effort to improve the flying experience for people with dementia, the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group has introduced initiatives such as the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard program. The program, which originated at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2016, has now been implemented in over 200 airports globally. It involves issuing light green lanyards with a sunflower pattern to travelers or their companions who want to discreetly indicate their need for extra assistance. This way, airport and airline staff can provide the necessary attention and repeat information as needed.

Despite the progress made by some airports, there are still incidents where people with dementia go missing during air travel. Candice Kirkwood, whose mother had Alzheimer’s, experienced her worst nightmare when her parents were flying through the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Her mother, who wore a badge indicating her need for assistance, went missing after her father was helped to the restroom by an airline attendant. The case remains unsolved, and Kirkwood’s trust in airlines has been deeply affected.

Efforts are being made to address these issues. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is set to launch the sunflower lanyard program in mid-September, providing training to employees on how to engage with travelers wearing the lanyards. The need for accommodations for travelers with dementia will only grow as the U.S. population ages and the prevalence of dementia increases. By 2060, nearly 10 million adults aged 65 or older are predicted to have dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is important to ensure that people with dementia can travel safely with the right support. Providing dementia-friendly accommodations at airports can make a significant difference in facilitating a more inclusive flying experience. As society continues to evolve, it is essential to recognize the needs of all individuals, regardless of age or cognitive ability.

Unique Perspective: Improving the accessibility and inclusivity of airports for people with dementia is not just a matter of convenience, but also a matter of dignity and respect. It is crucial for airports to prioritize the well-being and safety of all travelers, including those with cognitive impairments. By implementing dementia-friendly initiatives, airports can create environments that are welcoming and supportive for individuals with dementia and their families. These initiatives not only benefit the travelers themselves but also promote a more compassionate and understanding society as a whole.

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