Old People Can Fly Alone. My Octogenarian Parents Did; so did My MIL at age 98. But navigating the airport is stressful.
What stresses seniors (and many younger travelers)–at airports? There’s a certain tension connected with flying today. Excluding fear of flying, it includes 7 stressors:
1. Worry about being late–missing the flight.
2. Not packing correctly for TSA
3. Uncertainty about hearing announcements in the airport correctly.
4. Fear of not finding the way to the gate, especially in large airports.
5. Confusion about TSA requirements.
6. Being unable to remove shoes, belts etc. quickly–thus delaying everyone at the conveyor belt screening.
7. TSA finding something suspicious necessitating a pat-down; or the scanner detecting–unintentional, but prohibited–items (bottle of water, foil-wrapped food, over-large plastic bottles) and confiscating them.
Having our aging parents (my mom and dad; my husband’s mother) cross the country to come for Thanksgiving each year (until they reached their 90’s) was special for all of us. I don’t think my husband and I realized the planning and energy it took for them to travel as they aged. While the majority of that travel was before 9/11, 9/11 and their old age made our help more important.
1. If parents are elderly and insecure about air travel, relieve their anxiety about being late with information that you give them credit for already knowing. Use statements like: “I know you’ve thought of this, but leaving the house at (insert time) should get you to the airport without stress/in plenty of time.” Stated this way it isn’t diminishing.
2. Legitimizing that they’re perfectly capable ask if they’d like a little help organizing the clothes they’re taking and/or with packing. Remind them of TSA prohibited items; also that their medications should be in their carry-on and their ticket and ID should be together in a place they can get to easily and quickly. One checked-in suitcase and one carry-on that fits in the overhead bins or under the seat in front should suffice for 1-2 week trips if carefully packed.
A suitcase with wheels simplifies transporting any size suitcase, and a pulley works well for the carry-on.The key is thinking ahead about clothing needed and what makes sense to put in which case. R laid out her things-to-be-packed 2 days ahead of time, then added and subtracted as wanted. My dad always packed, with cases ready, the day before. Mother sometimes ended up leaving things she needed. I learned the pharmacist we used could give her 1 dose of medication, while waiting for the prescription (for the pills she’d forgotten) to be faxed to him.
3. When elders have hearing issues–even small ones–it never hurts to remind them that some announcements may be hard to understand because of a foreign accent. Legitimize asking the person next to them about any announcement they don’t understand..
4. Making one’s way to the gate can take a few minutes OR many. Make certain aging parents double-check the schedule as soon as they see the “Arrivals and Departure” screen so they aren’t rushed and confirm their gate # as soon as possible. Remind them gates are listed by airline with destination city in alphabetical order. Here, especially, is where the wheel chair can make everything easier. The person in the wheel chair, with his/her attendant, automatically goes to the front of the regular line for the TSA screening of self and carry-ons AND can later pre-board the plane.
5. You can make certain you and your parents are up-to-date on the latest TSA requirements by googling the airline and double-checking.
6. When we can go over TSA screening requirements with elders–ahead of time (shoes and belts off, pockets free of everything, computers off), there should be no surprises. Yet even knowledgeable people error and get stressed with this part of the process. Example:
On my last fight the woman going through security ahead of me had prepared yogurt with healthy grains and fruit. Foil was an integral part of the packaging.This was a very early morning flight. She hadn’t had breakfast. All was confiscated; she was angry, but had no recourse and needed to move on as line behind her grew–along with the people’s impatience.
Remind aging parents to ask any strong guy in line or the TSA person to help putting a heavy carry on on the conveyer belt. No use getting a hernia!
7. The TSA people I spoke with on my last 2 trips, say pat-downs take into consideration the fact passengers are in a wheel chair. Another plus for using a wheel chair. Indeed it also eliminates the preceding stressors #1-6.
Having TSA PreCheck, on the other hand, eliminates #6 and 7. At Kennedy last week the “TSA commander” of the PreCheck line was a showman as he explained not taking off shoes, belt etc.and what can’t legally be taken on board. PreCheck passengers suddenly responded throwing out water bottles they must have forgotten.
When questioned, the “commander” said that PreCheck passengers in wheel chairs had to wait their turn in the PreCheck line, so attendants usually took the regular line, where they were immediately ushered to the front, because it was quicker.
Most airlines have forms that allow parents to take an unaccompanied minor to the gate. These forms are available at check-in (before going through security). The same “courtesy” is usually given to the person accompanying an aging parent or friend so check it out. Use the same procedure as for a minor. Do remember this entails going through security–so throw out your water bottle! And don’t have anything in your purse, for example, that is on the ‘forbidden’ list or it will be confiscated.
As we try to help parents and the elders we care about age well, bringing family members together and expanding older adults’ horizons through air travel makes sense–definitely worth the extra time and effort that we put into it.