Vacationing with senior parents: 5 tips for a successful family trip

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So you’ve decided to book a family vacation that includes your aging parents. Now you’re wondering how you can make sure the memories you create on the trip are the kind you’ll remember fondly, and not the ones you’ll want to forget. The answer, according to adult children who have done it, is to plan carefully — and then to expect that those plans will change.

A few years after her father passed away, Kathleen Payne flew her mother across the country from New York to Portland, Oregon, and then to Los Angeles. She and her wife wanted to visit family on the West Coast and Payne was eager to show her mother a place she had never been.

“My parents had really loved to travel,” she says.

And while they had been all over the world, her mother had never been to Portland. Payne’s mother had dementia.

“She was getting to the point where she would forget things soon after you told them to her and so she would get easily confused,” Payne says. “We figured out that it would be nice while my mother was able to pay attention to the world, to go on one last trip.”

Here are five tried-and-true tips for enabling a smooth and successful family trip.

1. Consider every detail and don’t wing it

Whether your loved one has dementia or not, planning meticulously for a trip with a senior is the key to success.

“It made me feel like Napoleon plotting to win one of his campaigns,” Payne says.

She arranged for someone to care for her mother’s cat while she was away, as well as someone to care for her own cats. She made sure she had an ample supply of her mother’s medications. She carefully considered how and when to fly. Should they make a stop or fly straight through? What was the best time to arrive so her mother could adjust to the three hour time difference?

Anthony Cirillo, president of the Aging Experience, suggests using this checklist to plan a vacation that both you and your parent will enjoy.

  • Get medical clearance: Start with your parent’s physician to determine if they are capable of handling a trip and use your best judgment.
  • Pack medicine and paperwork: Take all pertinent medical information with you including a list of medications, advance directives and medical records.
  • Plan out flying: Allow for longer connection times and arrange for cart transportation inside the airport.
  • Make driving comfortable: Consider a rental vehicle with more space and accessible features.
  • Ensure safety abroad: If you are leaving the country consider the Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan, a free service from the U.S. Department of State that allows U.S. citizens traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

2. Minimize changes to normal routines

Focus on preserving your loved one’s routine as best as possible, particularly their eating and sleeping schedules, because small or unfamiliar changes can often feel overwhelming and stressful, particularly to someone living with dementia.

“For those taking a trip with someone with Alzheimer’s, the normal stresses of traveling can be even more challenging,” says Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). “Following a few simple, important steps can help caregivers make the trip as safe, pleasant and comfortable as possible for their loved one.”

If they have certain meal and bed times, stick as closely as possible to them. For Payne, that also meant making sure her mother could watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! every night, just like she did at home.