A Confused and Frightened Traveler in Dementialand

Last week, I was flying home from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, DC, when I did something that doesn’t make me proud. Actually, it’s more what I didn’t do than what I did do that has been bothering me.

I had spent the previous evening with my wonderful friend Dana, her boyfriend Brian, and their adorable (I do mean, adorable) dog Peanut. I think my Uber–a new experience–got me back to the hotel a little before 2 am. As I got up the next morning and packed up my suitcase, I found myself dragging a bit. Okay, maybe a lot. 

Then I got in a filthy cab with a driver who kept offering me gum. He told me no fewer than four times how much he enjoys Trident Peach Mango gum. He really, really wanted to share that gum. I was convinced the gum was actually laced with a sedative. I should’ve gone with an Uber again.

I had been told by several people that it would be more than adequate if I arrived an hour in advance of my flight out of Washington Reagan Airport. However, the security screening lines were ridiculous, and I got a little nervous. There were four lines from which to choose. I chose one of the center ones. As stated in the law of travel, the line you choose will be the slowest-moving line…and so it was.

I had been standing in this line for about 15 minutes when I noticed a tiny older African-American woman with a large suitcase on rollers standing outside the security screening area. Although she had on nice clothing, she had misbuttoned her shirt and it was half tucked into her long skirt. She looked confused, almost terrified. It seemed that she knew she needed to go through security, but she couldn’t figure out how to get in the line. She was pacing back and forth, muttering to herself, trying to interpret all of the lines and figure out where she needed to be.

I knew right away that she had a problem. If I were a betting person, I’d bet she had dementia. However, she could’ve had a mental illness, like schizophrenia. Maybe she took a medication that morning and had a bad reaction. I’ll never know. What I do know is that she seemed frightened. And hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals rushed around her. No one stopped.

It surprised me that she had gotten to the airport security area. I don’t know if she had checked in with the airline. I would hope that they would have realized something was wrong. I wondered how she got to the airport. It didn’t seem possible that she could have safely driven there. Had a family member dropped her off? Had she taken a cab? It amazed me that anyone would have dropped her off and assumed she could navigate the airport on her own.

As I watched everyone–business people, tourists, airport employees–pass her, I noticed that they looked at her, saw her distress, and then looked away. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s what I do when I see a homeless person. If you look away quickly enough, you can pretend you never noticed them. And if you didn’t notice them, you don’t feel obligated to help.

Why didn’t anyone help? I don’t think everyone who passed without helping her is a bad person. I’m sure some of those individuals were uncaring, but certainly not all of them. I think they didn’t quite know what to do. They weren’t sure what was wrong with her, and it made them uncomfortable. And, of course, some were in a hurry. After all, it was an airport. Some people turn into crazy self-absorbed beasts when they travel.

Looking back, I have to wonder if some of the people who saw her but didn’t help were also traveling home from the Alzheimer’s conference. I mean, there were 4,000 of us (Alzheimer’s researchers and practitioners) in DC. How’s that for irony?

Why didn’t I help? By the time I saw this woman, I had already been in line for 15 minutes. I watched her stare at the lines, not knowing what to do, for at least another 15 or 20 minutes. To help her, I would have had to get out of line. I wasn’t sure if I might be in jeopardy of missing my flight. If I missed the flight, I wasn’t sure how the university would feel about paying to re-book me. (Actually, I’m pretty sure I knew how they would feel, which is why I stayed in line.) I was sure that in time someone who had a few extra minutes would stop to help her. I hate to think of it this way, but I didn’t help because I thought someone else would help–someone who had more time. Are these good excuses? Absolutely not.

I work to promote the idea of dementia-friendly communities. I do community education on how we make can make life safer and more rewarding for people with dementia. And, yet, I saw someone with dementia who was struggling, and I didn’t do anything.

To be fair, I asked a TSA agent who was patrolling the lines if he might be able to go see if she needed help. He said that he wasn’t able to leave his post. When I finally got to the front of the line, I presented my boarding pass and ID to a different agent. I pointed out the woman and asked if there might be something that could be done. The agent barely looked up. She told me that the woman needed to get in line to go through security rather than just “pacing around.” (Well, obviously. Thanks, lady.)

I took my laptop out of my bag and removed my shoes. I kept looking back at this woman. She seemed to be getting more anxious and agitated. I made one more attempt to get her help. I told the agent who was shuffling travelers through the checkpoint that there was a confused and distressed woman who might need help. He herded me through without acknowledging he had heard me. I said it again.

He responded, “Ma’am, keep moving.” So I did…because I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t. Even as a grown-up, I tend to be pretty obedient to authority. I looked back after going through the checkpoint to see the woman still pacing around and muttering to herself. I sat there, putting on my shoes, and watching her. I think she might have been crying by then but I was too far away to tell for sure.

If I had it to do over again, I would’ve gotten myself out of line to help her. I’m not sure exactly how I would’ve helped her and I might have missed my flight, but I would’ve figured it out. Sometimes you just do what you gotta do and worry about the details as you go. Do the right thing and deal with any consequences later. 

I was telling a friend this story a few days ago. She reminded me that I cannot help everyone with dementia, and it’s not my personal responsibility to do so. She said that there are certain situations that are out of my control and I need to stop beating myself up over this. She was trying to make me feel better.

I appreciated her consoling me…but it doesn’t change the fact that I was traveling home from a conference on dementia when I failed to help someone with dementia.

She’s right that I can’t help everyone with dementia, but I could have helped that woman.

2 thoughts on “A Confused and Frightened Traveler in Dementialand

  1. I love to read your blogs. We seem to have a very similar thought process. Having traveled with my husband with FTD and two adult children recently, I can relate to a confused adult in the security line. I wonder if she is undiagnosed? This may be the big event that helps she and her family realize that something is wrong. Hopefully someone came along and gave her the support that she needed. But next time, I think we all will reach out to help. Thank you so much for your honesty and your willingness to share. As always, I benefitted from your words.

    Liked by 1 person

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