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How to Plan a Vacation With Your Aging Parent

The author of 'Planes, Canes and Automobiles' offers detailed tips

By Heidi Raschke

Val Grubb and her mom have traveled more than 300,000 miles together over the past 20 years. It hasn’t always been easy, but through careful planning, sensitivity to her mom’s changing needs and realistic expectations, Grubb and her 82-year-old mother are still vacationing together happily with few hiccups.

In her comprehensive new book, Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents Through Travel, Grubb covers seemingly every possibility and lays out a sensible, eyes-wide-open roadmap so others can do the same. The following excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book is an abbreviated version of her “Countdown to ‘Go!’” The complete version includes detailed advice on everything from travel agents to traveling abroad with a parent who needs to carry oxygen:

Countdown to 'Go!'

If you’ve ever traveled, you know that the days leading up to a vacation can be an extremely stressful time of balancing between planning for the trip while also preparing to be away from home and the office. And if you’re bringing along an aging parent, you’ll have to figure out a lot more than the usual details before jetting off to a city on the other side of the planet — or even driving to the town next door. I’ve found from traveling with my mom that planning well in advance saves a lot of stress. Here's how:

A Few Months in Advance

  • If you haven’t seen your parents in a while, now would be a good time to pay them a visit. Then you can see firsthand how they’re getting around so you can factor their mobility and overall health into the destination selection and trip planning. A visit may also be a great time for you to go with your parents to their doctors for professional input on these issues as well.
  • When booking flights, request wheelchair assistance on your parent’s ticket to help him or her get around the airport. A wheelchair — and assistance pushing it — can be a lifesaver for both of you.

Two Months Prior to Departure

  • If you’re someone who likes to wing it and find accommodations when you arrive in a new place, I recommend saving that style of travel for when you’re on your own and not with an aging parent who’s likely to prefer (and need) lodging arranged well in advance. If your parent has any special needs, you should definitely make reservations, because hotels, cruise ships and other lodgings typically have a limited number of accessible rooms — and they can fill up quickly!
  • At booking, confirm that the accommodations have the features such as a bathroom with handrails or shower chairs, large-button phones, rooms close to the elevator, sheet guards, etc. Hotels typically have wheelchairs to assist guests with moving between the lobby and their rooms, but if you’ll need exclusive, all-day use of a wheelchair for sightseeing, be sure to discuss that at time of booking. Follow up whatever arrangements you make with an e-mail to the hotel’s general manager. Same goes for cruise ships.
  • To build your parents’ excitement about the impending vacation, send them brochures or articles about your trip destination and the weather forecast there for your vacation period, too.

One Month Prior to Departure

  • Now is the time to familiarize yourself with your parents’ medical regimens so you can ensure that they’ll have everything they need during the trip.
  • If you haven’t traveled with your parents in a while, find out what luggage they’ll be bringing on the trip. After all, you may be the one who ends up carrying their suitcases around everywhere! I cannot stress enough the importance of having wheels on all luggage (both checked bags and carry-on ones).
  • Now is also a good time to start mapping out the details of your itinerary. Keep the daily pace to one your parents can manage, and make sure that the sites you’re visiting have elevators, wheelchair accessibility (and wheelchairs for rent) or whatever else your parents might need to help with their mobility issues. Also consider how you’ll get from location to location. If your parent can’t walk or can walk only short distances, for example, you’ll need to investigate transportation options such as private cars, public transportation or transportation provided by tour companies. When I’m on vacation with Mom, I want her to use her energy for walking around the tourist sites instead of for getting from place to place, so I typically rent a car for our exclusive use on our sightseeing days. I also love booking private tours through the hotel concierge, because these options give us control over the program — an important consideration if your parent has incontinence issues and you need to change your plans quickly.

One Week Prior to Departure

  • If you’re flying to your destination, confirm with the airline that it will indeed have a wheelchair waiting to get your parent through the airport. And here’s another great reason to request wheelchair assistance: when going through Customs, wheelchair users typically get to use a special lane that expedites entry.
  • If you’re traveling to a place where you don’t speak the local language, make arrangements through the hotel for car service to meet you and your parent at the airport when you land. I find this the easiest way to deal with navigating a foreign city with Mom, especially when I’m exhausted after a long flight. Usually the driver handles the luggage once I’m through customs, which frees me to push Mom’s wheelchair and get her settled in the car.
  • This week is also a good time to finalize your financial plans for the trip — specifically, how you and your parents will pay for most things during your travels. Make sure you discuss with your parents what credit cards they will be taking on vacation, and encourage them to bring only the bare minimum.
  • Speaking of bare minimums, have your parents clean out their wallets and purses and remove items they won’t need for the trip. The fewer items they bring, the fewer items they might lose. Consider getting your parent a travel purse or travel wallet.
  • Talk to your parents about what clothes they’ll need for your daytime activities and whether they should bring special attire for evening events, and help them identify anything else they’ll need to feel prepared for all the adventures that await them. Sending your parents a checklist of items to bring can help them get their packing done efficiently — and with minimal stress.
  • Because Mom worries about her house while she’s away on vacation, one week out I remind her to ask her neighbor to keep an eye on it while she’s gone. Consider encouraging your parents to make similar arrangements with their neighbors.
Planes Canes Automobiles Author and Book Embed

Three Days Prior to Departure

  • Follow up on any special requests you made to your hotel by calling and asking to speak with the front desk manager, the person who’s really in charge of guests’ needs and requests when they are on site.
  • Make copies of the picture pages of your passports and of your credit and debit cards so you have that information in case the originals are lost during the trip. Keep one hard copy in your carry-on luggage, ask a trusted friend to keep another hard copy and keep an electronic copy in a location you can easily access from anywhere in the world in the event your original documents and your hard copies of them disappear.

One Day Prior to Departure

  • Review with your parents which items go in checked luggage and which (such as medications) must be hand-carried on the plane. Don’t forget to pack snacks, especially if your parent is prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
  • Bring copies of your parents’ prescriptions in case questions about them arise when you go through security.
  • If your parent uses a hearing aid, pack extra batteries in your carry-on.
  • Bring along a magnifying glass and a pen light for reading on the plane.
  • Most importantly, stock your carry-on with reading materials, games, crossword puzzles, or other items to entertain you and your parents during the trip and during any unexpected delays.
  • Twenty-four hours prior to departure is the usual deadline for buying trip insurance. So if this is something you’re interested in, now’s the time to book it. Although some airports have kiosks where you can purchase trip insurance, I recommend taking care of this before you leave home so you have plenty of time to research the coverage you need. Be sure to bring a copy of the insurance policy with you, as well as a list of local hospitals at your destination. The insurer can typically provide you with this list based on your destination.

Day of Departure

  • Double (and triple!) check that your carry-on bags contain all your needed medicines, prescription details, passports and medical information.
  • Arrive early at the airport so you have plenty of time to check in and get through security. The wait times in security can be a nightmare, particularly during peak travel periods such as holidays.
  • Also, if you’ve requested wheelchair assistance at the airport to get you to your departure gate, verify that “wheelchair assist” is printed on your airline boarding passes so you know that the airline has your request in its records.

Upon Arrival

When you travel on your own, you may be able to go straight from the airport to the hotel to drop off your bags, and then out for some sight-seeing. But that plan probably won’t work for your parents. Aging parents usually take a bit longer to adjust to time changes and the effects of long flights, so plan on a bit of downtime — or at least slowed-down time — when you first reach your destination.

After long-haul flights, I typically keep activities to a minimum for a day or two to give Mom time to recover from the stress of travel and to allow any swelling of her feet to subside. That doesn’t mean we don’t do any sightseeing in those first few days. We just take it a bit easy so she has time to rest. If we’ve traveled across several time zones, we’re also a little crabby at the end of our journey, so sleep is a good thing for both of us!


Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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