(9:50 a.m. EDT) -- Years of working as a geriatric neurology nurse taught Kathy Shoaf that no matter what a person's age or disability, everybody wants and deserves to enjoy life. That's why three years ago she launched a travel company that works with several cruise lines to offer cruises for caregivers and their loved ones with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.
In the last three years, Shoaf has seen demand for these vacation options steadily increase from a single cruise in 2016, to three cruises in 2017 and five cruises planned for this year.
The first 2018 cruise sails May 12 from Boston for a round-trip tour of the historic New England coast. Other trips include a June Bermuda cruise in from Bayonne; an Alaska cruise in September; an October cruise to the Mexican Riviera that departs from San Diego and a December voyage to the eastern Caribbean that leaves from Fort Lauderdale. Each cruise lasts seven days and all are on Holland America Line except the Bermuda cruise, which is with Celebrity Cruises.
"I've never worked harder but I've never done anything more gratifying," said Shoaf, who goes on each sailing and brings along a team trained in elder care. "So many people say, 'Mom has always wanted to go to this place, but let's wait.' It's important that families don't wait. It's important to live life and enjoy those moments.
"When you're dealing with a neurological disorder, you can't predict how the medical issues will progress. They may not remember the details later, but in that moment, honest, complete joy and happiness happens, and the family and caregivers have life-long memories that cannot be replaced."
Shoaf's company is a certified special needs travel agency and she is a certified accessible travel advocate, designations given by the Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea, an organization that rents mobility aids, oxygen and other equipment to facilitate travel. Travel providers have recognized those with special needs are a growing market. Celebrity Cruises' sales team was the first cruise provider to have its sales team complete Special Needs Group's training program. Other lines, including Royal Caribbean, have added disability experts to their advisory boards.
Americans with disabilities spent $17.3 billion on travel in 2015. That's up from $13.6 billion in 2002, according to a survey by the Chicago non-profit Open Doors, which aims to provide people with disabilities equal travel opportunities and works with businesses so they can succeed in the disability market.
Shoaf said her cruise groups focus on seniors, many of whom have memory problems or physical limitations. At sea, Shoaf and her team provide brief periods of respite care – for example, an hour or two while a caregiver goes to the spa -- and can help arrange private duty care.
"Providing extra support and group activities gives many seniors the confidence they need to travel and enjoy life," she said. "There's someone available to help with a problem at all times."
Shoaf does not fully charter the ships. Rather, her groups are part of the larger cruise. On the Alaska cruise on HAL's Eurodam, for example, Shoaf's group will have up to 180 passengers, which is the maximum occupancy of the ship's conference center.
To build community, Shoaf's clients meet the day before the ship's launch, staying overnight at the same hotel. They also dine together onboard.
The cruises also include an educational element. A September cruise to Alaska, for example, is being co-hosted by Lisa Marie Chirico of Nursinghomeolgy.com and features senior care professionals and medical personnel. Planned seminars include how to adapt a home for someone with dementia, dealing with pain and grief and creating care partnerships.
Shoaf also offers programming geared to this specialized population: On the Boston trip, for example, an 82-year-old Zumba instructor will lead a chair exercise class. For the Alaska voyage, an adult coloring activity will include images of Alaskan birds and flowers. Music-based activities is woven into every trip.
"Music is an amazing way to stimulate and bring back memories from the past," Shoaf said. "You'll see people remembering lyrics or getting up and dancing with their partners after they haven't done that in years."
Shoaf has given tips to cruise personnel on how to handle people with neurological issues: Make eye contact. Speak slowly. Be prepared to repeat what you said without changing the wording.
"Most of the clients have moderate or early stage dementia and they want to communicate and participate," she said. "They don't want to be excluded."
Prices for vary by cruise. For the Alaska trip, for example, prices range from $1,510 - $2,710 per person
---By Natalie Pompilio, Cruise Critic contributor