A trip to the airport can be overwhelming and stressful for anyone, especially when you factor in parking, long lines, airport security checks and rushing around.

So imagine how living with dementia would amplify that stress. The crowds, the noise, an unfamiliar environment, and perhaps an airport employee who’s becoming frustrated as you struggle to come up with answers to their questions, and it’s easy to see how this condition would set someone up for a distressing trip. When overwhelmed, a person with dementia can become flustered, confused or even aggressive.

The Hidden Disability Sunflower Lanyard program

For these reasons, the Dementia Friendly Airports Working Group has been looking for ways to bridge that gap, and make the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport a more friendly place for people with dementia and other people with hidden conditions, including mental illness, deafness or Asperger’s.

Now passengers have a simple and discreet way to signal to airport workers that they have special needs. The Hidden Disability Sunflower Lanyard program is now available at the MSP International Airport, thanks to the efforts of this dementia advocacy group, which includes a staff member of Arthur’s Senior Care. The lanyard initiative is an international program that has been around since 2016 to help people with hidden disabilities to travel more successfully.

How the Hidden Disability Sunflower Lanyard program works is passengers (or their caregiver) who wish to self-identify as needing extra support can request a sunflower lanyard at the information booths at either terminal at the MSP airport. This lanyard provides a cue to airport employees and TSA staff that they’re speaking with a passenger with special needs.

For example, if the passenger isn’t understanding the employee’s directions, getting flustered or confused, the lanyard indicates to the employee this passenger isn’t doing these things to be difficult — but they could instead use an extra dose of patience. This lets the employee respond by providing alternatives that would make the passenger more comfortable, such as completing the screening in a more private place, or allowing the caregiver to stay close by.

The Dementia Friendly Airports Working Group is an offshoot of the Roseville Alzheimer’s and Dementia Community Action Team and is composed of public health researchers from the University of Minnesota, professionals in aging and dementia services, including Arthur’s Senior Care.

Best practices for screening passengers with dementia

In addition to helping to bring the Sunflower Lanyard program to the MSP International Airport, the group has been involved in other initiatives to ease the experience of travel for individuals with dementia. They developed a new set of training materials and best practices so TSA staff know how to respond when they encounter someone with dementia. For example, these passengers may be physically unable to complete some of the screening tasks, and they’re relying on their caretaker to explain on their behalf and guide them.

This new set of standards came from data collected by an academic level survey of travelers who either have dementia or are a care-partner to someone with dementia. This survey was pushed out onto the network developed through Arthur’s Memory Café as well as other senior and memory care groups.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the survey results revealed that people with dementia often encountered difficulties during their time at the airport, especially during the screening process. With the crowds, the noise, the rapid-fire orders and being told to step away from their caregiver, it can quickly escalate into an upsetting situation.

The lanyards, along with the new TSA guidelines, can help airport screeners and staff understand the communication gap between them and the passengers, and respond appropriately. The solution can be as simple as offering a chair so they can comfortably remove their shoes or taking a few extra minutes to explain directions in brief, easy-to-understand sentences.

Now that these initiatives are in place, the Dementia Friendly Airports Working Group will continue to pursue solutions to make travel more friendly for those with special needs.

At Arthur’s Senior Care, our goal is to create a living environment that optimizes the health, communication and mobility for each client so they can live life on their own terms. That’s why we help and support the efforts of the Dementia Friendly Airports Working Group to make traveling easier and more pleasant for people who are living with dementia and other hidden disabilities.

Arthur’s Memory Café has gone virtual with Zoom during the pandemic! Please contact our facilitator at lori@alzheimersspeaks.org if you’d like to register to join.