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The Caregivers' Guide to Summer Travel

Summer is upon us, and vacation is in the air. But the prospect can be daunting for someone limited by illness, disability or age, as well was for the 65.7 million family caregivers who help a loved one get through the day safely.
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Lily Avelon used to travel the world, but she hadn't left the country in 10 years as her Parkinson's disease advanced. It took a simple question from her occupational therapist to get her back in the air. "She told me she loved to travel, and I said, 'Well, why can't you?'" recalls Gerard Muncic, an occupational therapist with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

He helped her talk through -- and create solutions for -- the many obstacles she feared. One by one, Gerard broke down those barriers. Surely she could get to and from the airport, and once there, she could use her wheelchair right up to the door of the plane. Every aircraft has an onboard wheelchair, so she could get around in the air, and once in Paris, she could stay in an accessible hotel. So two summers ago, with a great deal of planning, Lily and her husband traveled to Paris and had a wonderful time.

Summer is upon us, and vacation is in the air. But the prospect can be daunting for someone limited by illness, disability or age, as well was for the 65.7 million family caregivers who help a loved one get through the day safely. For those like Lily who long to travel the world and for those who need a little R&R to recharge life at home, we have collected 10 travel tips from professional caregivers at Partners in Care to help you get to your destination comfortably and enjoy your precious time away.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. For those with limited mobility, medical uncertainty, chronic illness, or anxiety and depression, travel can bring an added layer of stress and a list of can'ts. You might begin with Gerard's question -- "Why can't you?" Listen to your loved one's concerns, address them as specifically as possible, and keep lines of dialogue open. Worried about using the bathroom on the plane? Planes are equipped with an on-board wheelchair for just that reason.

  • Be realistic. For those with complex medical needs or highly limited mobility, renting a one-story lakefront cottage in driving distance might be more enjoyable than a whirlwind jaunt overseas or a trip cross-country. Lily originally wanted to go to Turkey, but she and her husband determined that their desired itinerary presented more architectural barriers than an equally exciting trip to Paris. (After gaining confidence in Paris, she is now looking into Turkey-bound tours that specialize in accommodating wheelchair travelers.)
  • Plan ahead. Familiarize yourself with your destination before you go. Browse City Search, local tourism or chamber of commerce web sites to find health services, medical facilities, pharmacies and grocery stores. Keep that information with you while traveling.
  • Tailor travel to your needs. Check with your airline or hotel ahead of time about special requests, such as a wheelchair, meals or special room requirements (including a walk-in shower). If they cannot accommodate, find a place that will. For long drives, consider using a larger vehicle to accommodate your space needs. For those heading to the beach, bear in mind that from California to New York City, beaches rent or lend free of charge special wheelchairs equipped to navigate sand and even float in the ocean.
  • Attend to medication. If your or your family member takes medication, make sure you have enough on hand to get through the trip with a buffer in case of delays. Always carry a copy of the prescription. If you are flying, be sure that medication is in its original prescription container and check with the doctor about any special certificates for traveling. Also, be sure to review medication side effects, such as exposure to the sun or interaction with certain foods.
  • Pack appropriately. Take along support stockings for extended road trips or flights and pack a back-up of medical supplies. Have snacks and plenty of water ready. Even if your destination offers such provisions, you'll be better able to enjoy yourself if you have them on hand.
  • Maximize familiarity and routine. For a family member with dementia, a new environment will be confusing. Bring a few favorite objects from home and maintain your loved one's routine as much as possible.
  • Plan caretaking shifts. You might be the primary caregiver at home, but remind your family that this is your vacation, too. Set a schedule so that everyone who's old enough has a few hours to be responsible for caretaking. Check for nearby adult daycare centers, as well.
  • Line up the help you need. If your loved one needs assistance with personal care or has a condition that requires skilled nursing, consider bringing the home health aide or nurse along on the trip. Ask your agency about travel companion service. You could also contact a home health care agency to arrange for services at your destination, although continuity of care can make a big difference in your loved one's health and well-being.
  • Pace yourself. When traveling with elderly relatives or those with medical needs, build in enough extra time for frequent breaks and slow steps. Avoid rushing -- this is vacation! Keep in mind that an elderly or ill loved one tires more easily than the rest of the family, so include plenty of downtime in your day. Use the time to share family stories across generations.
  • And remember, you are not alone. Many have traveled this road -- on and off the beaten path -- and share information and resources. Good links for those traveling with a loved one limited by mobility, illness, injury or age include:

    General Travel

    Airline Travel

    TSA's website for passengers with a range of medical conditions, including having difficulty walking or standing, use portable oxygen and have metal joint implants. The site has a downloadable disability notification card for air travel.
    AARP flight tips for wheelchair users

    Illness-specific Travel Information

    Traveling with MS:
    - From the National Multiple Sclerosis Society
    - Doctor's tips
    - Peer-to-peer resource

    Traveling with Alzheimer's

    Traveling with diabetes

    Traveling with congestive heart failure (CHF)

    For more by Marki Flannery, click here.

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