If you’re worried about traveling with your elderly parent, that shows great compassion on your part. Trips planned years ago wouldn’t have stressed anyone, but which are now a challenge due to advanced age and infirmities. A four-hour car trip for the weekend to a grandchild’s wedding or a plane trip for a family reunion can require sincere planning. Any event worthy enough to consider special effort is worth asking the question: Is it wise to make this trip? It can be, but not always. Here we offer some advice.
Make sure it’s appropriate. Ask your doctor if traveling would be hazardous to your elder if in doubt. If the answer is no, make a plan to facetime with folks before the event to express good wishes. If the elder has a complex the medical condition, I recommend caution. Problems with diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and dementia can snowball on a long trip. In one tragic example, a woman undiagnosed with dementia but known to her family to have memory issues, walked past her airlines-assigned agent at the gate, who was holding a sign with her name, past her daughter waiting in baggage claim, who didn’t see her, and out of the airport. Be prepared to say not this time.
Ask First. Even if you’re prepared to take your elder on a trip, give them the dignity of asking if they want to travel or not. You may be surprised that the thought of a trip is too much for them. Maybe it’s the prospect of many hours in a car. Maybe the airport, or airplanes, and distance from their security unsettles them, even though it didn’t in the past. Age changes perceptions. Don’t assume just because you want to go, that they do too.
Plan for contingencies. Clothes get dirty and can’t be worn a second time. Clothes need to be changed because of other accidents. Trips get extended. Take extra clothes and medications in case you have to stay longer than anticipated. Take original pill bottles, both for emergencies, but also in case pills get mixed up. Bring pharmacy contact information in case pills get lost or stolen. Talk in advance to the airline about wheelchair service between gates, and to hotels for rooms fitted with grab bars and other assistive devices. Make sure medications are in carry-on bags, not in a checked bag that can get delayed or lost.
Lists, Lists, and More Lists. A senior’s daily routine may be very different from yours, with eating, walking, sleeping schedule requirements and a dozen or more medications and other supplies you aren’t accustomed to. Your elder’s normal caregiver should be consulted for schedules and supplies. This could include: Medication schedules and supplies (hypodermic needles, pill boxes, alcohol and cotton, Band-Aids). Medical Equipment (CPAP machine, oxygen bottle and supplies, ostomy parts), personal supplies (dentures, adult protective gear, diabetes testing kits), mobility solutions (wheelchair, walkers and canes), etc. All of this needs to return with you, so checklists are helpful – even for you.
Schedule According to your Elder’s Needs. Traveling after dinner can upset a senior’s sleep schedule, and should be avoided. That’s also the time of day when sundowning (late afternoon confusion) can happen. Plan no more than one activity a day for the elder. Also, get your parent’s caregiver to make you a list of their normal schedule. A predictable daily routine, with meals and naps at accustomed times, can help your parent be their best while traveling.
Recruit Family Help. Assign a rotation of family members to accompany your parent, particularly during a planning family event, but also at other times. Make certain the “sitter” will be comfortable helping them to the bathroom. Find a location where your parent can sit comfortably, so that others can visit them, instead of having them on their feet. Make a plan in case your parent wants to leave early—their stamina may not match their initial plan, or yours.
Plan Extra Time. It’s appropriate to be at a wedding a half hour before it starts and seniors are frequently honored with special seating. Elders move more slowly and don’t always have ready everything they want to take. It’s always necessary to get a head start when traveling with seniors. Things just take longer, and it’s more comfortable for all to be early versus late.
Take a Day Trip. If you haven’t traveled with your elder in more than a month, I recommend planning a day trip. Go through the entire process of a longer trip and see how your loved one responds. Going to the airport the first time in more than a month, take a tour of the airport and get a coffee and watch the people go by. Ask your elder how it feels to be around so many people. Ask about their flying memories. Gauge their readiness by leaning in locally prior to taking a trip away from home.
Talk Finances. Always a touchy subject, talk about money before you go. Money is always the number one cause for arguments among family members. Don’t assume your parent wants to pay for a meal for the whole family, or that other family members think it’s appropriate either. Don’t assume they will want to pay for a hotel room, even though you know Aunt Daisy doesn’t want guests. You may be doing all the work, but that doesn’t mean they plan on paying more than they think is their fair share.
What about a hired caregiver? Maybe you have a trusted caregiver who is willing to travel with your parent. Often that’s a great idea, but realize this introduces yet another unknown dynamic. It’s sometimes difficult to travel with someone who is a stranger to the rest of the family. Also, be prepared to pay for the caregiver’s meals, hotel, and even their hourly rate 24 hours a day from the moment you leave. After all, they’re away from their home and family for the weekend, are expected to be on call, and are working overtime. If they are employees of an agency, you may be able to negotiate some reduced rate. But in general, negotiate the terms with your caregiver weeks prior to travel and plan to write down the details and have you both sign for agreement.
Plan for a Medical Emergency. Hope for the best, and always bring powers of attorney documents, your parent’s identification, a medicine list, doctors’ contact information, and perhaps even past medical history documents. ER Physicians will run a myriad of tests prior to any treatment to understand medications and symptoms. Providing a summary and contact number for the physician to discuss the symptoms with your elder’s own physician will provide speed and better accuracy and more confidence for all.
When Travel is Impossible. Attending funerals and memorials can become regular events for elders. Travel to these services aren’t always an option due to logistics or stress related to the death. Additionally, those suffering from memory loss may become confused or scared in unfamiliar settings. Even happy events such as weddings and reunions can be overwhelming. Some alternative options include:
- Choosing a memorial service closer to home instead of the funeral in another city
- Videotaping the service for your loved one to view later
- Passing around a book for attendees to write a note to your elder
- Organizing a location so people can record a video message to your parent
- Bringing a wedding album by at a later date