Stress-free Travel Tips for Caregivers

This is a true story. In the last year before my grandmother was moved into a board and care facility, we sent her to visit my aunt – her oldest daughter – in Louisiana. We were living in California at the time. On the day she was due to arrive home, my parents went to the airport to meet her plane, and she wasn’t on it! I’m sure you can imagine the panic that ensued. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous, and it took many calls to and from customer service, gate agents, and my aunt, to figure out what had happened.

Art - Stress-Free Tips

Finally, we found out that my grandmother had been confused. Her ticket had been booked into San Francisco because it was an earlier flight and nonstop. But she knew she lived in San Jose, and the stress of traveling on her own had upset her so much that she’d insisted on changing her flight after my aunt had gone home. My husband and I were dispatched to the San Jose airport to fetch her, and when my parents got back from the other airport, we’d reached the point where we could laugh about it, but we also learned some valuable lessons that have since become standard practice.

With the holidays approaching, I thought it would be helpful to share my stress-free travel tips for caregivers.
  • Book Direct Flights with Morning Departures
    I’m a seasoned traveler and I still experience some anxiety when I have connecting flights, especially in the current travel climate, where schedules seem to change on a whim. For anyone with memory issues, or mental health issues, the race to make a connection is terrifying. Book nonstop flights that depart in the morning if you can. This gives the best chance of your family member arriving at the correct location, with minimal stress. Morning flights allow seniors to travel when they’re most alert and energetic, and also allow maximum “correction time” in case of a delay or change.
  • Travel with Your Loved One
    If it’s at all possible travel with the person you’re caring for. It’s helpful for them to have an advocate, especially if they have any memory issues, or don’t handle stress well (and let’s face it: flying is always stressful).
  • Get an Escort Pass
    Not all of us can break away to travel with our elderly family. If we can’t go with them, the next best thing is to get an escort pass at the airport. Just as parents of unaccompanied minors can get passes to take their children through security and to the gate, so too can caregivers for their loved ones with special needs. This allows you to go with them through security and wait at the gate until the plane pushes back.
  • Print Travel Details
    It’s a good idea to provide your loved one with a printout of their itinerary and the name and phone number of the person meeting them, as well as your own name and contact information. This prevents any kind of confusion and can be helpful to flight attendants and airline staff. If we’d had this information readily available for my grandmother, she might not have gotten confused and changed her flights.
  • Pack Medications and Prescription Copies in Carry-on
    Many of the people we care for take medication. It’s important to pack these meds in carry-on luggage, in case checked luggage is delayed or misplaced. If possible, pack with the original prescription labels. If temperature control is an issue, you can put frozen gel packs in with meds to keep them cool (they must be frozen solid). And rest assured, the three-ounce maximum for fluids does not apply to prescription medication.
  • Ask for Mobility Assistance
    Whether your loved one has a physical disability or just lacks stamina to go through security and walk to the gate without help, wheelchair assistance is free upon request. It’s best to ask for it at the time of booking, but you can request it at check-in as well. (Note: It’s considered polite to tip the wheelchair attendant, but it’s not mandatory.) Most attendants will ensure that your loved one makes a restroom stop and has the opportunity to buy a bottle of water or a snack before they’re brought to the gate. If you’re traveling with your loved one, you can choose to take control of the wheelchair after you’ve been escorted to your gate. Either way, the wheelchair attendant will return in time to wheel your loved one down the jetway for pre-boarding.
  • Go Early, Come Home Late
    If your loved on is traveling for a holiday or special occasion, build some extra time into their trip. Make sure they arrive a couple of days before the event and that they stay a couple of days after. This ensures a well-rested traveler, and also helps prevent an event being missed if there’s an unforeseen obstacle (weather delays, equipment malfunctions) on the way. Many older people fade late in the afternoon – my grandmother always napped between four and six – so scheduling travel for their best awake times does a lot for their mood and energy.
  • Prepare Your Other Family
    As your loved one’s primary caregiver, you live with them every day, and know their habits, quirks, and preferences. Your other relatives may not. Before you send Mom or Grandma to visit another relative, talk to that person. Make sure they know your loved one’s limitations and needs. Include them in writing in your loved one’s luggage or email them in advance. If your loved one has a specific schedule, include that. This will help reduce stress for everyone.

Travel can be challenging even for those of us who are young and spry. Travel during the fall and winter holidays can be even more so. By preparing your loved one and following these travel tips for caregivers, you can reduce the stress on your loved one, the family they are visiting and yourself.

As for my grandmother, after that trip to Louisiana she didn’t fly again. She followed the best tip of all: make your loved ones come visit you.

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