Tulsa International Airport Set to be the First U.S. Dementia-Friendly Airport

March 11, 2021

Tulsa International Airport (TUL) is working with Dementia Friendly Tulsa to become the first dementia-friendly airport in the United States.

“We are committed to providing a positive air travel experience for all passengers who come through TUL. That includes those with visible and non-visible disabilities, such as dementia,” said Alexis Higgins, CEO of Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust (TAIT.) “We hope to eliminate barriers that create stress, anxiety, frustration, and even fear. DFTulsa is providing us a foundation that we’ll continue to build upon.”

Dementia Friendly Tulsa is a grassroot initiative launched by Mayor G.T. Bynum in April 2017. The volunteer-driven program is free to businesses and organizations. It focuses on enhancing the city’s inclusion and meaningful engagement of those with cognitive decline, as well as their caregivers. DFTulsa is a member of the Dementia Friendly America Network founded in 2015.

“Making Tulsa a Dementia Friendly City was one of the first initiatives we launched when I became mayor, and I am excited to see this program expanding to Tulsa International Airport,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “I want to thank the airport staff for working to eliminate the social stigma around memory loss while empowering both patients and caregivers to engage safely in our community for as long as possible.”

Effective March 11, TUL employees will begin participating in the DFTulsa program and online resources. Additionally, TUL’s dementia-friendly strategy includes:

  • Providing first responder dementia-friendly training to all airport police officers.
  • Distributing the DFTulsa program to Airport Ambassadors, tenants, and other stakeholders to enhance their awareness of dementia characteristics and how to better interact with passengers and respond to potential concerns.
  • Increasing knowledge about TUL’s Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard program adopted in December 2020. Pioneered by London’s Gatwick Airport in 2016, the lanyards provide a discreet way for airport representatives to be aware that a person may need additional assistance or have special needs. Hidden disabilities include, but are not limited to, dementia, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety issues, mental health impairments, and hearing loss.
  • Ensuring Transportation Security Administration (TSA) information and notification cards for travelers with special needs are easy to access.
  • Reviewing all current and future airport wayfinding and signage to ensure design and layout are clear, visible, and easily interpreted.

The Dementia Friendly Tulsa program also complements screening information distributed nationwide in October 2020 to TSA airport agents, including those at TUL. That effort was the result of ongoing work by the Dementia-Friendly Airport Working Group based in Roseville, Minnesota.

In August 2016, London’s Heathrow Airport announced its launch of programs to become the world’s first dementia-friendly airport. Brisbane Airport quickly followed and was named Australia’s first dementia-friendly airport in June 2017.

“Currently, 50 million people worldwide are living with dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common type,” John Dornblaser, Dementia Friendly Tulsa chairman, said. “The early-to-middle stages of the disease can last a decade or more, so many people are able to continue enjoying an active social life, including traveling, for multiple years.”

Bryan Crook, director of customer experience at TAIT said, “Becoming dementia-friendly further enhances TUL programs already in place that provide people with disabilities unbiased access to the airport.”

In addition to the Sunflower Lanyard program, TUL offers a Wings for Autism social story booklet online, family-care designated restrooms, a TSA Cares dedicated helpline, wheelchairs available free of charge, relief areas for service animals, reserved accessible parking, assistance from Airport Ambassadors, and the Welcome Waggin’ airport therapy dog program.

“This is a wonderful achievement by Tulsa International Airport and Dementia Friendly Tulsa,” said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and co-lead for Dementia Friendly America. “We hope this is the beginning of similar efforts by many U.S. airports so air travel can be enjoyed much longer by those living with dementia and their care partners.”