Aging Parents and Travel: Advice from a 99-year-old Who Plans One More Trip

Travel Guides

Travel Guides (Photo credit: Vanessa (EY))

TRAVEL: Any vacation that requires little more than a short car ride to a familiar place involves more organization, thought and energy than it did pre-911 in the US. Understandably this can be daunting to old and older travelers when airport navigation and unfamiliar territory are involved, not to mention stress for anyone accompanying an older individual.

Navigating airports is no longer simply remembering to take our plane ticket, checking in, and walking to the gate. Organization and physical stamina are also necessary before ever boarding the plane.

Photo ID. Boarding Pass. Plus small-size liquids in an easy-to-get-to, no-larger-than-1-gallon plastic bag if “we carry on.” All at the ready so we don’t hold up the line…even before we figure out which line we belong in. Then the physical part for those under 75 or without TSA expedited screening–taking off shoes, belts, jackets etc.; putting them and the liquids, and computer in correct bins, and lifting all, plus carry-ons, onto the conveyor belt. (Passengers 75 and over may have “modified screening.”) We must be certain our pockets are completely empty before entering the scanning detectors. Finally a usually long walk to the gate.

If this doesn’t discourage all older travelers and anyone who feels responsibility for them, (exception: ship passengers), I don’t know what does.

Sr. Advisor R, who–at age 98– flew alone cross-country to visit us last year, just said she had one more trip in her (she will be 100 in September); so I asked if she’d share her thoughts about travel and how she does it. R’s words:

1. “Energy level changes. My renewed energy doesn’t renew as it used to…maybe because I don’t sleep as well. You have to think about everything–it isn’t that one doesn’t want to travel but you’re not as confident when you’re old. That’s what age is. For old people it’s not the world we knew….we don’t know what to depend on.

2.  “Look in the closet at least 2 weeks ahead. Make a list of the 4-5 outfits you’ll wear–on the plane, and at your destination. Try to mix and match. Think about underwear etc. Then get the clothes in order–it takes the pressure off, especially if you live alone. I leave clothes on wire hangers, slip a plastic bag over, and pack. They arrive in good shape. It’s organization.

3. “I put liquids in plastic bottles in a separate little case that I send as luggage–putting a zip lock bag over things that could leak. I think TSA always looks through it, because things are messed up when I get it back. But that’s OK.

4. “I use a practical purse and pack another purse. An older person needs to do what’s comfortable and not care what others think. For example, I’ve shrunk and now take a cushion to sit on. I have fat ones, thin ones–there’s a wonderful mid-size one that isn’t  heavy and has a little strap you put your hand through so it travels well.

5. “I put my boarding pass where it’s protected in the zipper compartment of my purse. I get needed cash ahead of time. My house key is with my change–so I always know where my key is. My photo ID and emergency numbers are in one place in my wallet. And I remember to put 3 Kleenexes in, should I need them. Older people need them. It’s a rude awakening, for example, to realize a muscle on the side of the mouth can weaken in some older people and saliva can drip unexpectedly. Usually old people don’t talk about this.

6. “I order a wheel chair when I make my reservation. It’s important. Airports are so large; the walks so long. I immediately tell the man who takes my luggage (curbside)–I’ve ordered a wheel chair. I allow extra time for this.  And have the tip ready and give it a minute or two after they begin pushing my wheel chair. Makes them happier at the beginning and I get a better ride from them,” R says laughingly. “It makes it a little friendlier–then you have someone who wants to do for you.”

Is there any more to say? R has figured it out. With no kids (only us-2,000 away) to help–or hinder, her independence and abilities are affirmed again and again. Yet R has said– many times this past year–“Getting Old is Hard.” When it gets too hard, she says she’ll ask us for help. That said, the thought of travel for old people can still be enticing– and isn’t it a wonderful gift if we can help make that happen for those who are able.

Related: “Aging Parents and Airports: Happy Landings or Headache-Producing

Aging Parents: Making the Effort–Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way….continued

What if aging parents don’t have the will to make the effort?

Dr. Bud doesn’t feel comfortable with “don’t have the will.” Instead, he says,

“It’s a style of encountering challenges. Some people are more can-do oriented and respond to change and challenges with determination. Others have difficulty.

“The latter may respond with feelings of overwhelming damage–making the damage seem even worse than it is; or they may be struggling with challenges or already coping to maintain equilibrium–to maintain balance.

“They may respond with pessimism–“even if I do, I won’t (or it won’t) get better.” Lacking other good things going on in their lives, trauma becomes another negative event. These negatives accumulate, can overwhelm. And they give up.

“For others–the doers–they think “challenge to overcome.” Therefore, they try new ways to cope (for example, with loss of a spouse, a medical situation etc.).

“Some search for an optimistic view when called upon to cope with frustration and disappointment. Indeed learning to cope (coping skills) starts early. At this time of year we can think about high school seniors getting–and having to handle–rejection letters from college admissions offices.

 “As for adult children, not much can be done initially to help aging parents who have difficulty coping with challenges. But they can at least understand elders’ setbacks (physical or emotional), with a greater sensitivity to their sense of loss, of damage, of hopelessness. They can emphasize with them, legitimizing their problem. And they can realize that many older people are struggling to activate their coping mechanism rather than letting the event overpower and cripple them.

Bottom line: Some people have better coping mechanisms. And some who don’t, need support–not criticism.”

PS. Even for elders who have always been giver-uppers, introducing hope can’t hurt. Dr. Bud and I want to add that as we try to help parents age well.

Aging Parents Making the Effort? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Why do some aging parents make the effort, while others don’t?

The stage at Carnegie Hall looked different this past Sunday. A large wood structure, painted to go with the Hall’s decor, occupied the space the podium usually occupies. James Levine, almost 70, was returning, in a wheelchair, to conduct the NY Philharmonic.

5/19/13: Stage during intermission at Carnegie Hall

5/19/13: Stage during intermission at Carnegie Hall

“One of America’s greatest living conductors,” (NY Times 5/19/13) and music director of the NY Philharmonic, the maestro had been sidelined for 2 years by spinal problems, shoulder injuries, and multiple back surgeries. The NY Times, reported  “A year ago, he said, ‘I couldn’t really move my legs, and a few months before that I couldn’t feel anything in them.’ It took him quite a while, he added, to even think of whether he would conduct again.”

August 2011, when he fell while on vacation causing another serious back injury, Mr. Levine said he was at his lowest point. Yet in May 2013–“Against all odds, James Levine is back” was the opening sentence in the NY Times. Obviously a great deal of “will”–on his part and on the part of Carnegie Hall led to the “way” to make what may have seemed impossible two years ago–a reality.

We see older people with the will. They no doubt aren’t as famous as James Levine. Yet they have that something within that pushes them forward and won’t let them quit. Sr. Advisor R is one.

I think back to Sr. Advisor R’s rehab after breaking her 97-year-old hip (femur) and her observations of the daily small group physical therapy sessions she participated in. She was the oldest there, yet she observed some younger people found the physical therapy very difficult and didn’t even try. (We were told, she tried encouraging them.)

That said, why do some do, while others don’t make the effort? Does it go back to People Change, Not Much? If they didn’t make the effort when they were younger, can they can’t be expected to change when they’re older?

There are, of course, those in the middle. Most probably make the effort when it’s worth it or they’re passionate about something, but–lacking perceived worth and passion– don’t have the will to do what it takes. This is often frustrating to us adult children.  We can easily get caught between wanting what we want for them and what they want–or don’t want– for themselves.

Dr. Bud weighs in tomorrow. Please come back tomorrow night.


4 Lessons Learned to Help Older Parents and Grandparents Age Well

Getting Out of the Dumps: Don’t Assume, The Incentive, “Normal” Depression, The Results

1. Remembering one of R’s wise sayings “Don’t assume” is something we need to keep in mind. We would have turned down James’s invitation if we had assumed R–at 99 1/2– wouldn’t go to a large gathering, especially when it followed another night out.  (R avoided large gatherings “like the plague”–beginning several years ago– because, she said, they took too much of her energy.)

2.  Our efforts to “jump-start” old people are great and should continue; but their feeling of gaining, not losing, ground has an even greater psychological “jump-start-effect on old people. (See observation below.)

3.  When old people can feel that they’ve moved themselves forward, made progress, accomplished something, the resulting sense of self-worth and satisfaction are more likely to enable them to see things in a different light, take another step forward, have the incentive to make the effort, and/or re-engage. ((Isn’t this true for all of us?)

4. We all get emotionally “stuck” from time to time but, unless very depressed, all bounce back. It may take our elders longer, however, for physical and psychological reasons. (Younger people can bounce back faster due to support of spouses, a large network of friends/colleagues, as well as structured responsibilities, connections, and more energy.)

1 observation which had bearing on the invite acceptance

During–and since–the long ordeal with her leg-wound-healing, R has said several times she’s depressed. Of course she refuses any medication, saying she’s old and that’s just the way it is.  A swollen leg–worse at night–followed the leg wound ultimately healing; and the recommended elastic stockings were difficult to put on so R consciously decided to  skip that. (Depression saps energy; can diminish the will to do; it becomes easy to “pull in.”)

After a lot of thinking, R decided to go back to her old, nonelectric, powered-by-her-feet treadmill, that she hadn’t used since she broke her hip a year-and-a-half ago. Reasoning: if she got the circulation in her legs going, perhaps the swelling would subside. R. says she has learned how important “getting the circulation going” is. “That’s what it’s really about and that means exercise,” she says.

Initially R could barely do 2 minutes and “it was so hard,” she reported (she did 15 minutes before the broken hip episode). In about 2 weeks she worked up to 5 minutes. Two days before the Seder invite, R called to say she had done 8 minutes and the swelling had decreased considerably. She sounded energized. She said she felt much better. She was moving forward.

In efforts to help parents and grandparents age well, ways to help achieve a legitimate goal or reinforce self-worth trump the jump-start. Can we do both?

Help Aging Parents: Including Older People With Health (and other issues) At Our Thanksgiving Dinner

Tonight, at dinner with a friend, Thanksgiving was a part of our conversation. My friend and her husband, with no family near, have plans to have Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. They have invited a good friend in her late 70’s, who has experienced great tragedy this year, to join them. My friend admits it won’t be a joyous, warm and fuzzy occasion. “But how can you not try to make it better for a friend” is her rationale.

My thoughts go back a year. I think about a dear friend from a neighboring garden club, in her mid-80’s, dying of cancer but still very “with it” in a hospice/care facility situation. Her grown kids were caring, smart and wonderful about everything. They even hired someone to be with her during the day to be certain she got the attention she needed. But they were afraid to  have her come to their home for Thanksgiving dinner–even for a few hours.  I believe they feared a health emergency could happen while she was at their home and/or she might be resistant to go back to the care facility.

There was no reason she couldn’t leave the facility for a few hours, according to the woman hired to stay with her during the day. But she couldn’t leave without assistance and her children’s OK . It was a sad situation for all. Probably not that uncommon though. And I sensed when I made my twice-weekly visit, that having to stay in the facility on Thanksgiving was a sobering realization that she’d lost control.

Ruth’s Thanksgiving experiences were the exact opposite. Ruth was one of my closest friend’s grandmother. It wasn’t easy for her daughter–and later grand-daughters who lived near me–to drive almost an hour to get her then bring her to our home then take her back and come back to their home near us. But Ruth looked forward to coming for Thanksgiving. She never came without a little gift and Thanksgiving thank you card that she had made–and with sight in only one eye.

As long as Ruth wanted to come for Thanksgiving, her grandchildren made the effort to bring her. Then one Thanksgiving night it happened. Ruth suddenly fell ill. One of her granddaughters took her to the hospital. It turned out they spent many hours in the emergency room. I’ve forgotten the diagnosis, but Ruth recovered and came back to spend several more Thanksgivings with us–until she died at 93.

A knee-jerk reaction to Ruth’s situation could understandably be “it’s not worth the bother,” “her health issues could spoil dinner,” “we don’t want to make the effort.” Yet it’s probably very little effort, when compared to the effort an old person must make to get ready and come.

Remembering to ask ourselves “What’s the goal” when confronted with these kinds of situations, should help us to make good decisions. We can also ask ourselves “Is it better for them or better for us?” When we do make the effort and see the resulting joy, how could we not want to try?