Summer travel: a trip without stumbling

Published 12:57 am Thursday, August 25, 2011

Travel plans are delicious diversions as we enjoy summer. But when the details are cumbersome and risky for our aging relatives, thoughts of our family vacation sour.

Alice’s concerns are typical.

“In the past, Mother flew to my sister’s for a couple of weeks when I took off to go to the beach with another family. But I wonder if she can make that flight alone anymore. Her memory and concentration problems make it so hard for her to solve problems in new settings. She is OK when someone is around to remind and reassure her, but I don’t know how she is going to manage meals, plane changes, restroom stops, much less handling pills enroute to Minnesota,” she said.

Two distinct issues emerged. First, whether this trip was wanted at this time by everyone in the family (especially Alice’s mother, Mrs. J), and second, what kind of practical preparation and assistance needed to be arranged?

This year there was to be a special family wedding in Minnesota. Probably 75 people, many of whom were not Mrs. J’s family, were to be there, and part of the time would be spent at a campsite. Mrs. J seemed anxious about the trip.

Clearly, this particular week would be too complicated for Mrs. J to visit: too many people, too many unfamiliar living spaces, bathrooms and activities that make it stressful for anyone, much less someone with limited mental and physical energy. Such visits — whether to weddings, reunions or other family celebrations — easily can be overwhelming to those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Therefore, an alternative time was found for Alice’s beach trip and Mrs. J’s flight. Then her special needs would not impose such a burden. Photo reminiscing after an event can take much of the strain out of trying to include a frail elder in the celebration itself.

But the practicalities of travel and security during the flight were the next problem. The family planned carefully with the airline for a simpler itinerary from Raleigh and between-flights airline support. Mrs. J carried reassuring “reminders” as well.

The family remembered to:

  • Arrange travel early in the day before exhaustion added to problems;
  • Request seating on the aisle close to the restroom;
  • Pack familiar food that is easy to handle, as well as packets of enroute medications;
  • Have a list of medical conditions, 36 hours’ worth of medications, extra hearing-aid batteries, spare glasses, incontinence supplies and emergency phone numbers in carry-on luggage. A nametag with destination also helped;
  • Arrange transfer assistance and wheelchairs as necessary from airline.

Traveling for older families is more than vacationing. It is refreshing the ties of life. Those family members getting time away from caregiving, as well as those members involved in the short times together, will reap only as much benefit as the attention each pays to planning and support.

Peggy Cohn is a retired geriatric-care manager with a background in public-health nursing and degrees in family studies and aging. The stories are drawn from local caregivers of folks with Alzheimer’s disease. All caregivers and their families are anonymous to protect their privacy and dignity.