Holiday Travel Tips for Caregivers

by Adrienne Glusman, Family Caregiver

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or is it? The holiday season is fraught with stress for most, even if it's good stress. Expectations of a "perfect" holiday, fed by advertising and media coverage, can contribute to depression for those who don't feel their holiday is measuring up. Add caregiving to the mix and the result can be overwhelming negative stress. As a caregiver during the holiday season, expectations and familial pressures add another dimension to an already stressful situation so approaching the holidays with awareness and a plan of action can help, especially when those holiday plans include travel.  

Have you thought about traveling with your loved one but worry if it’s the right decision? Many family caregivers struggle with this choice, I know I have, fearing that the trip will be too overwhelming with all of the “what if’s” and unknowns. Coming off Thanksgiving travels to North Carolina with mom to convene with her side of the family for five days, I’ve listed some tips to make for a smoother travel experience:

Tip #1: Give yourself plenty of time for travel

Give yourself more time than you think is needed to provide a cushion for unexpected delays.  

If you’re anything like me, I get to the airport just in the nick of time to walk onto the plane, but when traveling with mom, I always get to there two hours prior to the plane’s departure. You just don’t know where there is going to be a hiccup and don’t need to cause yourself unneeded stress.

Tip #2: Pack Essential Items in a Bag That’s Easily Accessible

Make sure you have essentials close at hand.

You know your loved one better than anyone! I always joke with mom that I’m packing her “diaper bag”. I bring a backpack (one less thing to carry) that’s filled with important documents, medications, snacks, a sweater and neck pillow.  Also, accidents can happen anywhere.  Make sure to include an extra change of comfortable clothing and an empty plastic bag for dirty/soiled clothing. If your family member is incontinent, like mom, it’s always an added stress for both parties.  Make sure you bring extra incontinence products so they can toilet right before the departure and when you land at your destination.

Tip #3: Be prepared on the receiving end

Ask the family you’re visiting if they can prepare things in advance of your arrival.

Since mom uses a wheelchair and walker, so as not to have to bring both medical devices, I asked my cousin to rent a walker for use while we were in town. If your loved one uses a toilet commode, this is highly recommended to rent as well as you don’t want to strain your back having to help them on and off low toilets. I also asked if she could pick up mom’s incontinence products, as these items tend to be bulky and take up precious room in a suitcase. 

Tip #4: Pack thoughtfully.

You want to feel confident that you have everything that you and your loved ones will need while you are traveling, but you do not want to have to pay for extra baggage fees on the airlines. Remember, anything can be purchased when you get to your destination, and if you’re staying at a family members home, a washing machine is just a laundry room away!  

One thing I always pack are disposable incontinence bed pads. It’s just an extra precaution against the bedsheets and there is no clean up required.  

Tip #5: Arrange Special Services Ahead of Time

If your loved one needs a wheelchair at the airport and/or an aisle wheelchair to assist them to their seat on the plane, advance boarding or special seating in a disabled row or near a restroom, get in touch with the airline personnel or travel company to make sure these are available upon arrival. Remember, the TSA security checkpoints, too, be aware of any surgical implants that might set off metal detectors, and wear easy-to-remove shoes. Contact the airline in advance to arrange for special screening if your loved one has disabilities or special needs, and contact hotels to check on things like shower bars and accessible rooms.  

Tip #6: Consult with a Doctor for Travel Approval and Tips

The all-important first step is making sure your loved one is cleared for travel by his or her primary care doctor, especially if you’re accommodating a health condition. Make sure the chosen destination is appropriate to your family member’s limitations and ask the doctor for specific travel tips as well as any medications or necessary vaccinations.

Tip #7: When Possible, Maintain a Predictable Daily Routine

Maintaining a routine or a predictable schedule is critical to reducing anxiety and stress in a loved one with cognitive impairment. Having mom keep to her routine is very important, given her Parkinson’s. I do my best to keep her mealtimes, medication schedules and rest times as consistent as possible and planning flights accordingly. Our family is also alerted to her routine so they know what to expect. 

Tip #8: Research Medical Facilities at Your Destination

Especially if you’re traveling to an unfamiliar area, make sure you know where the nearest hospitals and care centers are, in case of emergency, Bring contact details for your own doctors, too, and any necessary insurance information.

Tip #9: Prepare All Necessary Documentation and Identification

First, make sure travel documentation is in order: passports, if needed, as well as driver’s license, travel itineraries and tickets (or even better, download the airlines app for electronic ticketing). You’ll also want to pack medical documentation: Medicare and insurance cards (and photocopies) as well as any prescriptions or physician’s statements.

Tip #10: Limit your travel.

If your loved one has physical, mobility, medical, or cognitive challenges that are new or worsened this year, it may not be a good idea to go on several different trips during the holiday season. If possible, limit your travel to only the one or two trips that you simply cannot miss.

Mom’s family gets together every Thanksgiving, so we always make it a priority to make the trip, dependent on mom’s condition. Additionally, because you never know what each day will bring leading up to the trip, try to book with an airline who offers no cancellation fees. This has saved me previous time and money in the past. 

Visiting family over the years has been both challenging and rewarding. A ritual I’ve implemented is to take some time for myself the night prior to our departure to reset my mindset and remind myself of expectations vs. expectancy. Some expectations we all face as caregivers when visiting family, you haven’t seen in a while: everything has to run smoothly, I need to get everything right so I look like I have things under control, what will my family think of mom and how she has progressed?  But I take a minute to flip the coin -  I have an open mind about the trip and understand I can’t control everything, no matter how prepared I am trusting in the synchronicities and doing the best I can.

Holiday traveling doesn’t have to be difficult when caring for your loved one. Take the right steps to ensure a smooth journey and visit so everyone can enjoy the holiday season and each other.





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