Aging Parents and Elders Traveling Alone: Airplanes


    My aunt Millie (Dad’s sister) died in Oregon, 3 months short of her 100th birthday.  Dad, who was 91, was on the next morning’s flight from California to Oregon–alone.
    To backtrack–

My husband and I were in California for my high school reunion. I stayed on after the pre-reunion dinner while my husband drove my dad and a classmate’s 98-year-old mother back to where they were staying. They were met by news of Aunt Millie’s death.

My husband, a man of responsible action, immediately made a plane reservation for Dad to fly to Oregon to join his family the next morning. Dad had already begun packing his small case by the time I came in.

While that seemed logical to us, it astonished our friends. They were aghast at the fact we were “letting” Dad fly by himself at his age. We never gave it a second thought. Were we in denial?

Dad was in good shape. (Yes, he had 5 heart bypasses at age 76, but that didn’t curtail his life or his mind.) We would walk him to the gate; my brother would pick him up when he came through security at the Oregon airport. The plane crew was–hopefully–well-trained, should there be any problems…..probably better-trained than we. Why the fuss from our friends?

Does this highlight differing philosophies regarding responsibly empowering parents vs. parenting parents? Dad was independent; had a good head on his shoulders. How demeaning and counterproductive it would be to undermine his confidence…not to mention his pride!

Ditto for my recently deceased mil, R, former Sr. Advisor to this blog. When she flew 2000 miles to visit us at age 98 (she really wanted to see our new apartment so she could picture us in our daily lives), we didn’t dwell on the fact she’d recovered from broken hip surgery 15 months before. She wanted to come. We got her a first-class ticket (air miles help in this regard), selected her aisle seat and requested wheelchair service. A nephew took her to the plane (didn’t accompany her to the gate–the wheelchair attendant did that) and we greeted her at Kennedy when the wheelchair attendant brought her from the baggage claim area.

I think Mother, unlike R or Dad, would have been nervous flying alone when elderly (at 88 she predeceased Dad). We can’t be certain how we’ll react to something until we go through it, so the following is hypothetical.

If mother really wanted to fly to visit her aging brother, because she had a good mind I would have tried empowering her with a logical explanation: “You’ll have a wheel chair, I’ll go with you to the gate, Tom will pick you up at the other end, and the flight crew has better training than us if anything unexpected should happen.” If she was still nervous, I’d inquire about using the Unaccompanied Minor Program (additional fee, uniformed employees assist from the point of departure to the final destination) or a family member would accompany her…but I’d try empowering first.

I’m comfortable with that, but realize many are not. Clearly when elders have certain physical needs or dementia, consulting their physician before making plans is a must.

RE: comfortable. We want our elders to have a comfortable flight. While pillows and blankets are traditional First Class amenities, having a shawl or sweater in case the cabin is cold–and because elders are usually colder than younger people– makes sense whether flying First or Economy Class. Many passengers like those U-shaped neck supports or a small pillow. It’s also sensible for elders to have hand sanitizer (in the plastic quart-size, zip-lock bag with their liquids).

Travel is stimulating–something elders can look forward to. It produces happy memories that last and help sustain. Combine that with research validating the importance of connections with others in aging well, and elder travel is a win-win for those healthy enough. Is It Better for Parents or Better for Us? Will Actions Empower or Diminish? Two Key Thoughts (see right sidebar) can help with decisions about elders flying alone.

Here’s to happy travels for seniors this summer. A visit to adult children and/or their grandchildren perhaps?.
Related: Airports, Aging Parents, Elders: Happy or Pain-Producing Experience 2015 Part 1    Airports, Travel, Aging Parents, Elders: Happy or Pain-Producing Experience 2015 Part 2

Traveling Tips for the Elderly  Read comments; some–not all–tips seem sensible to me; also American Airlines offers senior fares on some domestic flights.
Victoria Kong Dies at Airport:  A tragic experience that makes a point.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

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