Travelers: Sky Harbor launches dementia-friendly services

By Jordan Houston

The city of Phoenix is making strides in its promise to become a more dementia-friendly environment.

Mayor Kate Gallego recently unveiled a new Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport initiative dedicated to furthering the city’s overarching mission to becoming a recognized Dementia Friendly City.

The initiative requires employee training and other elements aimed at easing travel and other airport-related experiences for those living with dementia. The help extends to patients’ families and travel companions, according to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Customer Service Manager Misty Cisneros-Contreras.

“We are America’s friendliest airport and we’re always looking at opportunities to improve the experience for our customers,” Cisneros-Contreras says. 

“We realize we are the biggest airport in Arizona and we know people have choices – we want people to look forward to coming here.”

A major change is the implementation of the Compassion Cacti Lanyard Program, which identifies those needing extra assistance.

“Anybody who has a hidden disability, or self-identifies as having a hidden disability, can apply to get a lanyard,” she says.

“What that lanyard does is, when traveling through Phoenix, it alerts a lot of internal stakeholders and staff to recognize that lanyard and triggers the employee to know that this person may need a little bit of extra attention, or patience, or to be given directions a bit differently.”

The lanyards, which can be kept and used each time the passenger travels through Sky Harbor, also allows travelers to enter new quiet areas located in the airport’s Compassion Corner in Terminal 4. The Corner, a multi-faceted space for customers and airport employees, encompasses three primary components — the multifaith chapel, the Compassion Corner Office and the Sensory Room.

The Sensory Room, according to Cisneros-Contreras, features minimal distractions to help curtail any potential agitation or confusion that can present itself in a person experiencing dementia while traveling. It serves as a space for the traveler to regroup, she continues.

“If you’re traveling with someone who needs to get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport, they can go into the room,” Cisneros-Contreras says. “We’ve got some seating from an airplane in there so they can feel what it’s like before they get into the airplane. It also has bubble walls, a couch and some fidget-type items for smaller children.”

Sky Harbor has made its website more user-friendly for those inquiring about its support services, Cisneros-Contreras says.

The new initiative also calls for updated trainings for city employees about dementia care and support programs that provide resources and aid to people with memory loss.

“We’ve been working with dementia-friendly partners through Banner Health and other nonprofits to make it more friendly as far as understanding what resources we have available,” Cisneros-Contreras shares.

Last year, Phoenix was among the first and largest cities to commit to joining Dementia Friendly America (DFA), a national network of communities, organizations and individuals dedicated to ensuring that communities across the country are well-equipped to support people living with dementia and their caregivers.

The DFA, administered by USAging, works to identify and establish Dementia Friendly Communities, according to its website. Such communities uplift people living with dementia to remain in the community while engaging in daily living, the site continues.

“The most rewarding part is seeing the impact that it (the initiative) has on different individuals and seeing the sense of relief that people have when they come to find us and find that help they’ve been looking for,” Cisneros-Contreras says. “It’s very rewarding to hear their stories.”

Roughly 50 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, the Alzheimer’s Association states.

Dementia is an umbrella term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to impede daily life, the Association continues.

Disorders grouped under the term are caused by abnormal brain changes, triggering a decline in cognitive abilities. Symptoms also affect a person’s behavior, feelings and capacity to function independently, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

While signs of dementia can vary, examples include problems with short-term memory, keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments or traveling out of the neighborhood, the Association says.

To apply for a Compassion Cacti Lanyard online, visit Sky Harbor does not require medical records for approval. 

For more information about Dementia Friendly America, visit