Navigating airports and going through security can be stressful. For those with dementia, air travel can be an ordeal.

A Minnesota group wants to hear about experiences with airports and flying from people with dementia and their caretakers in order to explore improvements to the air travel process.

"We're not looking for horror stories. We're looking for serious statements about what works and what doesn't work," said Sara Barsel, founder of the Roseville Alzheimer's and Dementia Community Action Team.

The organization partnered with dementia experts, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Australia, Twin Cities-area residents and others to form the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group. Its first order of business is conducting a survey on all aspects of air travel, from booking a flight to landing at the destination.

The online survey is open through Sept. 15. It can be found at http://bit.ly/DementiaFriendlyAirports.

"There is just about no research done on air travel by people with dementia," Barsel said, adding the working group is looking to get as wide an audience as possible for the survey.

Possible difficulties people with dementia can encounter include anxiety and confusion dealing with airport security, crowds and noise. Changes in air pressure also can trigger dementia-related symptoms, Barsel said.

Survey questions ask about experiences navigating airports, difficulties during the flight and going through customs for international travel. Researchers say the survey will take 20-40 minutes, but it depends on the level of detail in responses.

Though the survey is anonymous, respondents have the option to provide contact information for possible follow-up, Barsel said.

When the survey closes, she said the group will go about analyzing the data and gleaning insights.

"And share it as appropriate with airports, airlines or other groups to make (flying) a better experience," Barsel said.

Dementia-friendly

The initiative got started in 2018 after Dr. Joseph Gaugler with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health was lecturing in Australia. He learned Brisbane Airport joined the growing ranks of airports around the world designated as dementia-friendly, meaning staff completed dementia-awareness training.

Back stateside, Gaugler contacted Barsel about getting Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport designated as dementia-friendly. Barsel said it was a daunting prospect for the volunteer-only Roseville Alzheimer’s and Dementia Community Action Team, but she got to work putting together a team with the Brisbane Airport project’s lead researcher, Dr. Maria O’Reilly.

In all it took about six months to make the survey, including getting approval for research on humans from the U of M’s Institutional Review Board, Barsel said.

Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom became the first airport to be designated dementia-friendly in 2016. Initiatives at the airport include providing quiet areas in terminals and specialized training.

An estimated 5 million Americans ages 65 and up have dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is expected to climb to 14 million by the year 2060.

Dementia encompasses a group of conditions that impair memory and other brain functions. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzhiemer's Association has tips for traveling with dementia at https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/safety/traveling.