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New Kansas City airport incorporates dementia-friendly features with guidance from KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center

The KU ARDC’s Michelle Niedens and Dementia Friendly Kansas City provided advice and advocacy to help make the new Kansas City International Airport more welcoming and accessible.

Three people stand together facing the camera, with a balloon shaped as an airplane above them and matching blue and white balloons gathered behind them.
Left to right, Michelle Niedens of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center joined Deborah Shouse and Ron Zoglin of Dementia Friendly Kansas City to tour the new dementia-friendly Kansas City International Airport. All photos courtesy Ron Zoglin, Michelle Niedens and Justin Meyer.

Tour through the new Kansas City International Airport (KCI), and you might notice the expansive floor plan, the transparent jetway boarding bridges and the designated passenger pickup area. But less immediately apparent is the work of the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (KU ADRC) and other local advocates to make the airport dementia-friendly.

Michelle Niedens, LSCSW, director of The Cognitive Care Network at the KU ADRC, joined with the advocacy team of Dementia Friendly Kansas City. Together they helped guide architects and designers to consider the needs of travelers with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as their caregivers.

“When I heard that we’re going to have a new airport in Kansas City, I thought, ‘How wonderful would it be, at the beginning of this major endeavor where we could create an impact, to create something helpful and new, rather than having to retrofit a facility later?’” Niedens said.

Working with her in the planning process were Deborah Shouse and Ron Zoglin, co-founders of the advocacy group Dementia Friendly Kansas City. Before the airport project, they had worked with Niedens on numerous other projects seeking to make public spaces more dementia-friendly.

The group consulted with Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group, based in Roseville, Minnesota, and an international dementia-friendly travel group, based in the United Kingdom, to gain insight into dementia-friendly design features at airports around the world.

“Even though the airport designers were trying to be inclusionary, dementia wasn’t necessarily on their list,” Shouse explained. “But they welcomed us and listened carefully as we described the needs of travelers living with dementia and their care partners.”

Justin Meyer, deputy director of aviation for marketing and air service development at KCI, gave Niedens, Shouse and Zoglin a tour of the airport before it opened on Feb. 28. “We sought to make sure this new airport terminal met all travelers where they are and was designed with the highest levels of accessibility and inclusivity in mind,” Meyer said.

Signage and specialized spaces

Finding a restroom after a long flight can be important for any traveler, but it’s especially pressing for individuals easily overwhelmed by their surroundings, including those living with dementia. The uncertainty over being at the correct gate for departure can also be heightened. “Signage was really important to us,” Niedens said. There are also multiple information desks at the airport, not just in a central location as travelers arrive.

Family restrooms, conveniently located near same-sex restrooms, allow care partners to accompany their loved one into the restroom. Some are equipped with adult-sized changing tables. “That was something our care partners really wanted, so they have a full-size table that comes down from the wall,” Shouse said.

In the other restrooms, stalls are larger than the standard in the former terminal. “What they’ve done with the bathrooms is amazing,” Zoglin said. “It’s floor-to-ceiling privacy, and red and green lights outside of each stall let you know if it’s available or not available.”

The airport’s quiet room is finished in earthy green and wood tones to calm overwhelmed travelers. Even the dull finish on the floor, distinctive from the high-gloss tile of the rest of the facility, was picked to accommodate visual spatial changes that can occur in dementia. The finish and other key details came directly out of input provided by the dementia-friendly group.

“Sometimes the overstimulation is not just [a problem for] the person with the disease, but for the people traveling with them,” Niedens explained. “It can be tricky to travel, and what we really wanted to do is to extend the travel window for those in middle-stage (dementia) to stay connected, to visit their families, so supporting caregiving was also key.”

Simulation center

In addition to making traditional aspects of the airport more welcoming and convenient for people living with dementia, Niedens and her colleagues at Dementia Friendly Kansas City also recommended a simulation center in the new airport. The airport’s Kansas City Air Travel Experience provides a simulation of the air travel process from check-in to deplaning.

Appointments to experience the simulator are required, but a boarding pass is not required to enter. “Users are guided through every step of the air travel experience inside a section of an actual Airbus 321 fuselage,” the airport’s website attests.

“The simulator is almost more about the care partner’s anxiety than the person with the disease.,” Niedens said. “It’s about managing that anxiety: ‘Can I manage this? Can I get this person in and out of the bathroom on a flight?’ The best way to handle that stress is to practice first,” she said, noting that the simulator is helpful to people with all different types of challenges, from dementia to autism and anxiety.

Overall, Niedens said, working with Kansas City officials, architects, designers and other advocates was “a beautiful partnership” that she believes now makes KCI one of the most dementia-friendly airports in the country. “It allowed the KU ADRC to advance our philosophy that ‘it’s not about can’t.’ We work around barriers that allow people to continue to have positive experiences and a great quality of life.”

Signage in the new KCI airport is easy to read and employs visuals whenever possible, helping those who are living with dementia as well as many other groups.
Green lights above the stalls in the KCI restrooms quickly alert visitors to availability, a plus for those with dementia.
Some restrooms at the KCI airport are equipped with adult-sized changing tables.
The inclusion of a quiet room at the airport was high on the priority list from Niedens and the dementia-friendly advocacy group.
The airport’s Kansas City Air Travel Experience allows anyone to test out the flying experience before taking flight. The interior is part of a decommissioned Airbus 321. All photos courtesy Ron Zoglin, Michelle Niedens and Justin Meyer.

For more information

Learn more about MyAlliance for Brain Health at the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Discover the KU ADRC’s Alzheimer’s disease support groups.

Get a video tour of the new terminal at KCI airport.

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