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Traveling with Older Parents

A vacation with Mom and Dad may require more planning than a typical vacation

By Rosie Wolf Williams

We are traveling again. We want our parents or older loved ones to spend time with us, to see other family members — or even take that dream trip they have always wanted.

Dan Levitt's mother was turning 75, and he wanted to make her birthday special. He asked his mother along on a planned work trip to Europe.

A couple posing in front of a landmark. Next Avenue, How to travel with older parents
Duyen Do and Sac Do at Yellowstone  |  Credit: Jennifer Do

"We added on days before and afterwards, to be tourists," says Levitt, adjunct professor in gerontology at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada. "The difference with [an older] traveling companion was that I needed to think about her mental health needs and her physical stamina to ensure that the load on her was reasonable, and that she would enjoy the trip."

Planning is Key

Jennifer Do, a gastrointestinal pathologist, and her husband Vuong Do of Maumelle, Arkansas, planned a family road trip to Yellowstone including their older parents. The Dos are avid travelers, but they knew they needed to put their parents' needs first when planning the trip.

"I wanted to make sure the cabin was accessible ahead of time and that there were no major steps to climb."

"We wanted comfortable accommodations, and ended up booking a four-bedroom log cabin. I wanted to make sure the cabin was accessible ahead of time and that there were no major steps to climb," she says. "I find that it is important to reach out to the property owner directly to ensure there are not many stairs and if there are, that they are not too steep and have handrails." 

Careful pre-planning can help, and is most important if your older parent has physical or medical disabilities. Here are some more tips:

  • Make an appointment with your parent’s doctor at least 8 weeks before your trip to be certain your parent is in good health for travel. Fill any prescriptions through the travel dates, and ask if any vaccinations are needed for travel overseas. Request signed notes that list prescribed medications and any paperwork that describes implants or other issues that could raise red flags at a TSA screening. Ask the doctor about managing dosage times if you are traveling to other time zones.
  • Make sure all necessary documents such as passports or identification cards are current. Ask your parent to have an advance directive in place.
  • Consider a tour package, rail travel, or a cruise. Many tour companies have trips that cater to older travelers. Book double occupancy or rooms that are connected with an inner door, so you are available for caregiving. “Having a stable place to keep your things and being able to unpack and settle in tends to be a great option,” says Do. “Also, they can call an early night if they want, without cramping your style. Everyone can do their own thing without feeling guilty.”
  • Take practice trips. Note your parent’s needs, such as bathroom breaks, energy levels, sleep patterns and nutritional needs. “Do a test run with a day trip or an overnight,” says Levitt, adding that even planning music preferences or audio books is important if you are on a road trip. If you are planning a 10-day cruise, book a one or two-day river cruise first as a test.
  • Take short walks to strengthen backs and legs before the trip. Make sure to break in walking shoes if they are new. An online exercise program for older adults can help build stamina — offer to be a workout buddy!
  • Ask your phone company about packages that allow you to send and receive text messages and make calls overseas. Get a cell phone for your parent to carry during the trip, and delete any confusing or unnecessary apps or features. Add important phone numbers (including yours) so your parent can call if they are separated from you during the trip.

Airline Preparations

Traveling by air is complicated for even the most seasoned of travelers. If you are traveling with an older person, take a few extra steps to reduce the exasperation.

  • Choose direct flights or routes to the destination, cutting down gate changes and long wait times. Consider your parents’ routines, and choose times that will allow them to be at their best. “If there are mobility challenges, the airlines will support you in the airport and boarding the plane,” Levitt says. Most airlines have an accessibility plan and take this responsibility seriously.” Call the airline ahead of your flight and ask if there are steps to board the aircraft. Confirm boarding privileges, wheelchair access, or bulkhead seats. Is it a long flight? You might want to pay extra for first class seating, and reserve an aisle seat.
  • Make sure you have paperwork available for TSA, including paperwork for any prescriptions, portable oxygen tanks, medical devices or implants that may show up during the screening process.  TSA Cares can help request a Passenger Support Specialist by calling 1-855-787-2227 about 72 hours ahead of travel.
  • Pack smart. Help your parent choose travel-friendly outfits that can be washed and used more than once during the trip. Use money belts instead of wallets or purses for more security. Levitt says he would have provided more guidance to his mother on traveling light. This could have prevented checked bags and TSA screening holdups.

On the Road Tips

The Dos rented a minivan that would comfortably seat everyone, and had good views from every seat. But her mother had trouble getting in and out of the vehicle, so they ended up finding a step stool to use during their day trips. "I researched the park pretty extensively to figure out our routes of travel. Many of the major sites in Yellowstone have boardwalks which are relatively flat," says Do. "We tried to focus on these, rather than having our parents traipsing through the woods on dirt trails."

A couple smiling on a hiking trail. Next Avenue, How to travel with older parents
Jean Stratton and Raymond Hammond at Yellowstone  |  Credit: Jennifer Do

Plan for shorter days when traveling with older persons. "FOMO (fear of missing out) can be the enemy of a good time," says Do. "It is better to see a few amazing things and enjoy them, rather than feel like you are slogging through, just to check boxes. [Our] parents became pretty tired and were worn out and dehydrated by the end of the day."

Do also recommends keeping a first aid kit on hand. "Older people often have delicate skin. Some are on blood thinners, so they are more prone to scrapes and cuts, and may bleed more than expected," she says. "It is important to be prepared so that minor injuries don't become major problems. Have gauze, medical tape, adhesive bandages, and Vaseline or other ointments available."

Make the Vacation Memorable

Traveling with older parents can be fulfilling and fun if you prepare well and consider their needs and comfort when creating an itinerary. Do is planning another trip to the Norwegian Fjords with their parents that includes a cruise.

The Dos are GenXers and self-described adrenaline junkies, so the Yellowstone trip taught them that they needed to slow the pace for their parents. "We thought we were taking it easy on them, but it was still a bit too much," says Do. "The next one will be very scenic and laid back."

Levitt has already booked several more vacations with his mother. "My mom and I are still talking about our time together," says Levitt. "It has brought us closer, and we both look forward to vacations and adventures in the future."

Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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