At a certain stage during the course of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, a person can exhibit exit-seeking behavior. It is believed that the person exhibiting this behavior is actually trying to get home, or back to a familiar place, or even seeking a feeling of comfort rather than simply trying to escape from their current location.
This “exiting” can take place just about anywhere, even at the person’s own home – resulting in a dangerous scenario where a wandering vulnerable person could easily fall into any number of horrific situations because of their inability to get back to the safety of their home (be it a personal residence or a long-term care facility.) Exiting behavior also takes place in public places such as grocery stores or shopping malls, movie theaters, airports, and yes, even airplanes at 35,000 feet above the ground. This latter scenario happened on a recent flight I took from Dulles International Airport (DC area) to Seattle International Airport (Seattle, Washington.)
Just a half hour into our five-plus hour flight, a female passenger of approximately 75 years of age became very agitated during our ascent and before the fasten seat belt sign was switched off, she climbed over the passengers in her row, carry-on in hand, screaming all the way to the back of the plane from Row 34. I was seated in Row 35. “Wow, she must really have to use the bathroom!” I thought. A flight attendant tried to get the passenger re-situated in her seat to no avail. Complicating matters was the fact that the passenger was from another geographical continent and not only did she not speak or understand English, it was determined that other passengers who had flown with her from that same continent (not any relation or connection to her) also could not understand a word that she said. In essence, she was speaking gibberish. That was the first sign to myself and the flight attendants, that a) this woman was flying alone; b) she was in severe distress; and c) she most likely had some sort of dementia and was trying to exit her environment. Not an easy task, nor one any of the United Airline employees were about to allow.
Eventually, passengers’ inconvenience took a back seat to this passenger’s distress. Not everyone was as forgiving, but those of us in the immediate vicinity of the drama taking place sensed this was no ordinary situation. Even the laudable efforts of three on-duty flight attendants, one off-duty flight attendant, and one of the pilots, were not successful. Two hours into this frantic flight, my husband and I started looking at the United Airlines in-flight magazine map to discern which major airport we might be diverted to – that’s how aggressive the entire episode was becoming. Then a Good Samaritan, one of the previously mentioned passengers who had made the 20-hour journey from another continent with this woman, offered to sit with the distressed passenger in her row because it became evident that she thought this familiar-looking man was her son and as such, he provided a small amount of comfort to her. Additionally, he physically prevented her from getting out of her row by pretending to be asleep with his head against the back of the seat in front of him.
Who in their right mind would allow this woman to navigate the difficult – at best – task of getting from one country to another, unaccompanied, and without medical attention? Her son, that’s who. Evidently he was waiting at the airport in Seattle to pick her up at baggage claim. Now I know that I am only aware of a fraction of the story, but the fact remains that this vulnerable woman should not have been subjected to this all-day long task of flying from one country to another; changing planes at who knows how many different airports; all the while not understanding anything that was going on around her. It is not too far-fetched to conclude that this passenger might even have had another aggravating medical condition such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), a condition that so often causes extreme behaviors in those whose health is already compromised. Of this I am certain – during our five and a half hour flight, this distressed woman never used the bathroom, did not drink any liquids, and did not eat any food. Was that the case throughout her day’s long travel experience? Was she experiencing the painful effects of being dehydrated? The bottom line is that the outcome of all of the known, and unknown, factors was a disaster of unfortunate magnitude.
End of the story? As us relieved-to-be-on-the-ground-in-Seattle-passengers filed off the 757 jet, the off-duty flight attendant went to this woman’s aid and apparently took on the task of getting her to the waiting family member. The rest of us never saw her in baggage claim, but it’s a fair assumption that the passenger received some sort of medical intervention at the arriving gate and was eventually reunited with her son. The best case scenario that I have come up with is that the son relocated his mother to the Seattle area to get her the type of medical/neurological attention that she so desperately needs, with the goal of moving her into a memory care unit nearby. That’s the story I’m holding onto in the hopes that an eventual happy ending will greatly benefit this distressed woman.