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.
A larger-than-carry-on-size suitcase with wheels that gets checked, plus a carry-on with or without wheels– depending if it’s lightweight when packed–work well.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 she rethought her needs. 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’s good to remind them that some announcements may be hard to understand because of a foreign accent or a lot of noise in the terminal. Legitimize their asking the person next to them about any announcement they don’t hear fully. Sometimes it’s a gate change.
4. Walking to the gate can take a few minutes OR many. Make certain aging parents double-check “Arrivals and Departure” screen for their airline as soon as they see it. Thus, they confirm their gate # right away and know where to go. Remind them gates are listed by airline with destination city in alphabetical order. Here is where a person in the wheel chair with an attendant has an advantage. They automatically goes to the front of the TSA regular line for screening of self and carry-ons AND later pre-board the plane first.
5. Make certain you and your parents are up-to-date on the latest TSA requirements by googling the airline and double-checking. My husband also always checks the gate number online a few hours before going to the airport–after there was a terminal change at Kennedy one time and he had to re-hail a taxi to get him to the adjoining terminal.
6. When we can review TSA screening requirements with elders–ahead of time (shoes and belts off, pockets free of everything, computers off)–there should be no surprises for elders who don’t travel often or have imperfect memories. Even knowledgeable people make mistakes and get stressed. Example:
On my last fight the 30-something going through security ahead of me had prepared yogurt with healthy grains and fruit. Foil was an integral part of the packaging. This was an 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 lifting heavy items/cases 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 #3-6.
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 went to the regular line, where they were immediately ushered to the front. So it was quicker.
Just as most airlines have forms available at check-in that allow parents to take an unaccompanied minor to the gate, the same “courtesy” is usually given to the person accompanying an aging parent or friend so check it out. Remember this entails your going through security also–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.