Forget sadness: holidays still matter to those with dementia
There were tears and confusion, but precious memories remain of a trip following an Alzheimer's diagnosis
Publicly reducing my mother-in-law to tears on the first day of a family holiday in the South of France was not, on the face of it, the best start to the week. My father-in-law frowned as she sobbed on his shoulder.
Concerned glances from passers-by soon turned to smiles though as my mother-in-law, Ivy, laughed through her tears. What might have been mistaken for a moment of familial strife, or a powerful response to the glorious Provençal countryside, was instead a release of emotion at a travel wish fulfilled after my father-in-law, George, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the degenerative brain disease, in late 2016 at the age of 79.
On Boxing Day of that year, George, not usually one for big displays of emotion, had sobbed in Ivy’s arms as a result of the recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He clung to Ivy who, like many before her, was still adjusting to her new life as carer. She wiped away her own tears as she tried to comfort George, while my husband, Edward, stared red-eyed at the floor.
Keen travellers throughout their married life, what George and Ivy needed, now more than ever, was a holiday. Yet I knew Ivy felt overwhelmed at the thought of them taking a trip abroad together without additional help. George, who grappled daily through a fog of confusion, had in recent years become uncharacteristically angry and petulant. He could also no longer bear to be parted from Ivy, even for short periods, and had taken to following her around.
Desperately wanting to spread some Christmas cheer, I announced that the four of us would travel to the South of France, an area they all knew and loved, the following summer. In response, three pairs of watery eyes lit up brighter than the tree in the corner of the room.
Fast forward to a hilltop near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the sight of George and Ivy delighting in the view had instantly made the trip worthwhile. But I already knew to expect considerable challenges.
Memory is a unique and treasured essence that is gradually obliterated in those with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of what is more
George, 18 months after his diagnosis, still gets angry at any mention of the A-word, or if he feels he is being given special treatment.
It’s a tricky landscape to navigate, as his failure to grasp situations often leaves him discombobulated and suspicious.
Holidays can be beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s because they offer new experiences and a break from routine. However, a change of scene can also be confusing.
Our trip nearly hit the buffers after my husband arrived at a hotel near St Pancras International, where his parents had stayed the previous night, to find Ivy in a fluster and George, who was still getting dressed, in an argumentative mood after initially refusing to get out of bed.
George, a former lecturer, would previously have been up with the lark, busily getting on with the day. With gentle coaxing, Edward defused the situation and got both of them to the train on time.
The direct six-hour journey to Avignon lulled George. After collecting our hire car we headed to a house in a nearby village, which we had booked independently, to minimise transfer times. The house would also provide communal living while giving Ivy respite from George’s repetitive and occasionally difficult behaviour.
We arrived to find steep steps to the front door and, at the rear of the property, a vertiginous terraced garden. Edward sheepishly confessed that his main consideration, aside from the number of bedrooms, had been a ping pong table in the garden. George had played table tennis for many years, teaching his son to play as a boy, and it was still something he loved. Edward, an indulged only son, was instantly forgiven (though not immediately by me).
Ivy is prone to taking tumbles on steps and uneven surfaces. Over the coming days I kept a watchful eye as she shuffled up and down the terraces, admiring the many flowers, while George and Edward played table tennis. George, who couldn’t remember his way around the house for the duration of our stay, surprised us by keeping score and winning games. Bat in hand, he was resurgent. But there were painful reminders of the changes to come.
In an age fuelled by almost a billion Instagram feeds, the pressure to make lasting memories, especially on holiday, has never been more acute. I watched one morning as Edward and George posed for selfies in the garden. Afterwards, George had studied the images of father and son, before asking: “Who are they?”
Days started with a leisurely al fresco breakfast, followed by afternoons exploring the area. With each new experience, George became brighter. Edward and I, used to dashing about on holiday, revelled in the slower pace. George also helped us appreciate the little things: the cloudless blue sky fascinated him and lifted his mood.
People lose their inhibitions on holiday as they cast off the stresses of everyday life, but I hadn’t expected nudity: I walked into my bedroom to find George drying himself after a shower on a sheet he had pulled from our bed. I became adept at averting my gaze.
Evenings were spent immersed in music, which is known to raise the spirits of those with Alzheimer’s. Via the wonder of YouTube, we took George and Ivy on a trip down memory lane as they rediscovered the music that had formed the soundtrack to their courtship almost 65 years ago.
Staying in a house, as opposed to a hotel, also meant that Edward, our chef for the week, could cook simple dishes to accommodate George’s changing tastes. Wine had previously been an important part of holidays but George’s dementia meant alcohol was off limits. Rather than repeatedly explaining that he shouldn’t drink, we opted for alcohol-free beer. It was one of our healthiest holidays to date.
Edward and I knew it would require effort on our part to ensure the trip went smoothly and, despite our causing the only argument of the week over where to have lunch in Avignon, the trip passed without incident.
At every opportunity, we ensured Ivy had time to herself, to read or do a crossword, while we occupied George. Ivy believes the combination of new experiences and additional support had a calming effect on them both, which helped her cope better with George.
The four of us now plan to travel to Mallorca, another favourite destination, this year. Eight months on, and despite a slight worsening of symptoms, George, so Ivy tells me, still remembers snapshots of the week.
Thank you for the music
On our final night, the four of us took a stroll after dinner at a restaurant in a nearby village. George stopped regularly to examine car number plates, but this childish reminder of his changing personality threatened to upset Ivy. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I pressed play on my phone and the mellifluous voice of Anni-Frid, the brunette from ABBA, filled the warm night air as the words to Our Last Summer took on a new poignancy.
The disapproving slam of a window shutter from above was met with laughter from George as he linked arms with Ivy to sway in time to the beat.
I silently gave thanks for the music as they moved as one down the lamplit street. Precious memories that remain.
– © The Daily Telegraph
What we learnt
• It helped that we had visited the area previously since it meant navigating our way around was stress-free;
• In retrospect, handwritten signs attached to internal doors might have helped George find his way around the house;
• If staying in a hotel, book out of season and let staff know a member of the party has dementia;
• Consider the needs of all members of the group when booking accommodation;
• Restaurant staff can be helpful if you discreetly advise them of the situation on arrival;
• Ensure the person with dementia has adequate travel insurance and medication is carried in hand luggage;
• Music, singing and laughter can help leave happy memories of your time away.