During the year or so before Dan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he took long drives in the countryside.
“It clears the cobwebs from my mind,” he had told our son, Mike.
Maybe, as he lost his ability to sequence things, riding through landscape provided that sequence; things went by in order. After the disease was diagnosed, he continued to enjoy rides in the car .
In May of 1996, when we learned Dan had Alzheimer’s disease, we both felt trapped in the surreal place where bad dreams are made. We needed an escape, so that summer we took a short trip from Fort Francis to Thunderbay, Canada. Dan drove. The trip was relaxing and gave us time to enjoy each other.
We had planned to spend our retirement years traveling; the fact that we didn’t have much time now loomed in our minds. A last adventure together was an obvious way to expend our time. Our dream destination had been Greece and Crete, Scotland our second choice. Since every detail of travel would fall on me—planning itinerary, packing, maneuvering through airports and customs—we chose Scotland. We both had hereditary ties, and the language is the same as ours, more or less.
To further simplify matters, we traveled with a tour group. All lodging, food, baggage, and travel were the responsibility of our tour guide. I could devote my time to Dan.
Our trip took place in May of 1997. We flew to Glasgow, and covered both coasts and parts of central Scotland on a tour bus. Given the fact that Dan loved to ride, nothing could have been more perfect. He enjoyed the tour guide’s dialogue about the history and scenery, liked being part of a group, and snapped pictures to document our trip. We both enjoyed the chance to relax and share the pleasures of travel, but we did, at first, have trouble fitting in with the tour group.
Many of our fellow travelers were retired couples about our age. Also on board were two college students, the twelve year old granddaughter of one couple, two school teachers, and Frank, a distinctively unwashed, thirtyish young man from New York. At first people were friendly with us and sought to sit with us at dinner, the distinguished looking college professor and his wife. Dan could converse, but often he did not understand questions, and his answers were vague and baffling. I chattered, encouraged our dinner partners to talk, and acted the aggressive spouse by answering questions directed to Dan. People sensed something was not quite right, and after two days we were the next to the last member of the tour to be sought as dinner partners. Our unwashed companion, Frank, was the last.
The third evening’s hotel had three large tables set for dinner. Only Frank was seated when we entered the dining room, and I chose to sit next to him. As the tables filled the lack of options forced others to sit with us. We had a jolly time. We learned that Frank had saved for a long time for the trip. From then on people invited us and Frank to sit with them in the evenings. The last day Frank was squeaky clean, and he lined us up to take a picture of His tour group. We went home feeling it was our group, too.
We took other trips over the next two years, and we discovered that the train was a wonderful way to travel. The small, public bathroom in coach class initially made Dan, uneasy, but we worked it out. For part of the journey we had a sleeping compartment which gave us privacy. The compartment had a sink and toilet—not partitioned off but easier for Dan to deal with. Dan was able to manage dinner and breakfast in the dining car, and we ate our lunch in the privacy of our compartment. Throughout the trip, Dan enjoyed watching the scenery go by. We toured the east coast and made visits to relatives along the way.
My father’s health necessitated repeated quick trips to Florida. At that time airports did not have family bathrooms and I needed to have a male with us to help Dan. Many now do. On our Florida trips, waiting for delayed planes caused Dan to exhibit extreme anxiety and agitation. I switched from plane to car; we did not have long waits, we could stop to eat and sleep when Dan needed to, and gas station restrooms are usually for use by one person at a time and have doors that lock. Overall, people were accepting when a couple exited the restroom.
In the Spring of 1998 we made a trip by car to Florida, and in the Fall of 1998, a trip to Portland, Oregon to visit our oldest son, Rick. Rick drove back across Canada to Thunder Bay with us. A traveling companion was helpful, because if I left Dan alone he would get out of the car by himself and wander. In fact, I lost him once on the way to Oregon when I went to the restroom at a gas station. He turned up in an aisle of the station’s convenience store.
By the summer of 1999, if I locked Dan in the car with his seat belt fastened, he could not figure out how to get out. I traveled solo with him to Ohio, but the long drive was tiring for Dan. The change in sleeping places each night confused him, and the constant change of situation seemed to wear him out.
That December we again flew to Florida. Rick accompanied us to help maneuver Dan through airports and on and off the plane, to take care of baggage, and to watch him while I took bathroom breaks. We encountered long delays and crowded airports. When the call for pre-boarding came for the return flight, Rick and I decided that Dan and I should take advantage of the early boarding and use the plane’s restroom to change Dan’s pull-up lining Dan panicked in the small bathroom compartment. The two of us were smashed together, he struggled, the door flew open, and there we were as I wrestled to change his diaper. The boarding passengers were startled. I managed to put Dan’s his clothing back on, but he escaped and headed toward the front of the plane. While I called out, “No, don’t let him by,” people obligingly stepped aside to let him pass. Rick managed to reach Dan and bring him back to his seat. (That was pre 9/11/2001. Think what would happen today.)
“Mom, this is too hard on Dad, you, and everyone,” my son told me. He was right. Our travel days together were over.
In the fall of 2001 I took my first extended trip by myself, and in 2004 I took a three week trip to Greece. I had competent caregivers who came in during the week to help me take care of Dan and who could manage well if I was gone overnight. I missed having my husband with me, but I had the memory of those trips we had made together: We saw and enjoyed friends, family, new places, and each other. We did, after all, accomplish a small part of our shared dream to travel.