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Joys, challenges of journeys with aging parents

I was studying Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstractions, seduced by her simple charcoal curves, pink-and-blue flowers and cloud fields, when my cellphone rang.

That afternoon in Santa Fe, I had slipped out of my parents’ hotel. As they napped, I strolled around the Plaza and found myself at the museum devoted to one of my favorite artists.

Still, my thoughts of Mom and Dad were never far. When I answered my phone, I knew I would hear my father’s voice.

“Please come back to the hotel,” he said. “We’ve decided to go to the clinic.”

New Mexico’s enchantment had lured me away from Dallas several times before. This time, I came for my parents. Classical music lovers, they were on a tour that included the Santa Fe Opera. They invited me to join them for a few days.

I get to see my parents, who live in Illinois, only three or four times a year. So I readily accepted their invitation, even though I knew there would be challenges, as well as joys, in traveling with elderly parents.

Longtime global explorers, Mom and Dad have reached their mid-70s. They have slowed down. Despite my father’s stubborn nature (some say I have inherited the same), they can neither travel as much, nor do as much during their travels, as they did in their prime. To compound matters, my mother’s health has been faltering.

While in Santa Fe, Mom started suffering abdominal pain. At first, we thought it might be the result of a bad meal or the city’s high altitude. When her pain didn’t subside, I scouted out a walk-in clinic and tried to persuade her to see a doctor. She resisted.

Then, my father’s phone call.

Like most people who are making that inexorable slide into middle-age, I was struggling to piece together the narrative of my relationship with my parents, once strained but now better.

As I left the museum and rushed back to the hotel, I realized that this trip would have to be for them, not for me.
Different generations gather at a family reunion in Las Vegas on April 2010.(MCT)
Different generations gather at a family reunion in Las Vegas on April 2010.(MCT)

In recent years, I have traveled with them to Houston, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s become important to plan ahead. I make sure I book the same hotel or one close to theirs, so that I can come to their assistance quickly. I ask them whether they’d like me to rent a car, as I will gladly chauffeur them around town.

I’ve had to change my expectations. We focus on one or two activities a day, saving enough time for rest. Meals are interesting. My parents have become more particular about their food and how it should be prepared. The prelude to the meal often becomes a protracted education of ― or negotiation with ― the waiter.

When traveling with elderly parents, be flexible, says Dr. Stanley Ingman, professor of applied gerontology at the University of North Texas. Talk about your plans and expectations early on. Your parents “may not want to go, go, go, like you want to go,” he says. “Be prepared for more naps. It’s a cooperative deal. If you’re not prepared for that, you’ll be frustrated.”

Travel can open your eyes to your parents’ limitations, says Lue Taff, geriatric care manager at the Senior Source in Dallas.

“Parents, especially if both are still alive, tend to cover for each other,” she explains. “But when you spend time with them (on a trip), you’ll see things you haven’t before.”

Amy Goyer, AARP’s family expert, has traveled with her parents, who are in their 80s. She says that, no matter what challenges arise, the adult children must remain calm.

“You are the stabilizing force,” she says. “This is the time you can’t afford to get upset. ... One of the things about traveling with older family members is that you have to be a bit fearless. There isn’t much that happens when you travel that can’t be dealt with.”

In the waiting room of the Santa Fe clinic, I leafed through a magazine. My parents were in the examining room with the physician’s assistant. I thought about abstractions: How you think you’re prepared for your parents’ decline, but you have to experience it firsthand to truly understand.

Now, as they enter their twilight years, I want to close the distance. Travel, our common love, has helped us reconnect. On our journeys, there’s no one I would rather enjoy a meal with than my father. On our journeys, there’s no one I would rather watch people with than my mother.

Tips for traveling with elderly parents

Choose a destination with your parents’ interests and mobility in mind. For example, a resort or cruise might be easier than a place where they’d have to walk great distances.

Plan ahead. Find out the most efficient way to get from the airport to the hotel. Get more information about where your hotel is and what sights are nearby. Study your destination’s transportation system, including taxis, buses and trains. Learn more about restaurants that can cater to your parents’ dietary needs.

Talk with your parents about your expectations ahead of time. Will your parents focus on one or two activities a day? Will the rest of the family be able to do other things independently?

Be aware that as your parents get older, they may be less able to cope with, and may even get confused by, unfamiliar settings.

Consider booking a direct flight, even if it’s more expensive. Amy Goyer, the AARP expert, and her parents booked a flight with a connection in Dallas. But then bad weather shut down Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Goyer and her parents couldn’t get a flight out of Dallas for two days. It was an exhausting experience, she says.

Make sure your parents pack their medications in carry-on bags, if they’re flying. Be sure they take relevant medical records, including a list of medications and allergies, as well as health insurance information.

If your parents need wheelchairs, call ahead at airports. Even if they don’t need wheelchairs, consider getting the assistance of a Sky Cap, who can get you through airport security more efficiently.

Dehydration can be a problem during travel, especially for seniors. Make sure your parents drink lots of water.

Budget enough time each day for your parents to get some rest and take naps.

As airports have tightened security, lines have grown longer and the process has become more stressful. Get to the airport earlier than you’re used to in order to give your parents time to navigate security.

Be prepared for unresolved family and parent-child issues to arise ― for example, when your parents start treating you like a child (and when you start acting like one).

By Thomas Huang

(The Dallas Morning News)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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