Travel, Part 1: Flying in the Age of Claustrophobia

This blog is all about making the final fifteen percent of one’s life rewarding, and the most common item on the wish list of many people in that stage of life is travel. As long as we remain able-bodied and have sufficient income, travel is an obvious way to get pleasure from life. Unfortunately, when people start to face some physical challenges, travel often becomes one of the first pleasures in life to disappear. My husband and I both think there are ways to extend the period of time when travel can be pleasurable. Because I have served on the Board of Directors of the Parkinson’s Association of Orange County for the last five years and because both Bill and I have attended one of their best programs, a vocal therapy group, we both have lots of friends with physical challenges. A few of these friends have offered to contribute some information on how they manage to keep on traveling even with the mobility issues that Parkinson’s causes. Another friend with parents who have both mobility and cognitive issues is also contributing some ideas to this post.

There is so much information to cover on this subject that we will break this post into several parts. In this first part, we are going to talk about traveling by airplane. Future posts on travel will cover other forms of transportation as well as hotel stays, sightseeing, and other elements of pleasurable travel.

Arriving at the Finish Line

Finishing the Journey

Having a great travel experience involves far more planning than it did when we were young and could just grab a backpack and take off. Now there are items like medicines, mobility devices, personal hygiene issues (how to dispose of the Depends discretely), energy supply, etc. But all that planning can be half the fun because of the sense of anticipation it brings, and the end result is made clear in the picture we have included here.

Let’s start with the list of some of the most common difficulties related to travel so we can break this subject down into parts.

Here’s our list of challenges:

  1. walking or maintaining balance including the need for canes, walkers, or wheelchairs
  2. having enough energy
  3. lack of strength to carry baggage or souvenirs
  4. incontinence
  5. need for a limited diet
  6. need for medication or oxygen
  7. limited funds
  8. inability to drive
  9. issues with claustrophobia (very common in people with dementia)
  10. need for medical help while abroad

On the last long trip Bill and I took, Bill was using a cane due to difficulties with balance and speed. We were heading to Florida from California and had a change of planes at the Dallas Airport. As anyone who has had to change planes in Dallas knows, it can be a lengthy trip from the arrival gate to the departure gate during a plane change. On the advice of friends, we thought we had the situation covered. We had arranged for a wheelchair to meet us when we landed and transport Bill to the departure gate. There was only 45 minutes between flights and we didn’t know our way around the airport well. (Next time I will pay more attention to the length of the layover.) The advice was good and we made the connection, but we had overlooked one important thing.

lots of wheelchairs

Should you order one wheelchair or two?

The attendant who gave Bill the ride was wonderful. He was there the minute we got off the plane. He knew right where to take us for the next flight, he moved fast (maybe too fast), and he took wonderful care of Bill. The first thing he did was hand all the carry-on baggage to me. Apparently there is a rule against loading it onto the guy in the wheelchair. Then he looked at his watch, said our plane had gotten in late and we had to hustle. What followed was a run through the airport that left me breathless and with my pulse rate way too high. I wish I had a picture of that experience but, unlike the Kardashians, I don’t carry a selfie stick for moments like that. I got to the next flight out of breath, with my face all red and a heart rate that would have alarmed my cardiologist. But Bill had a huge smile on his face and had enjoyed himself tremendously. Note to self: next time get a wheelchair for both of us. It is the only thing connected to flying that doesn’t cost extra these days and I would have enjoyed the trip so much more that way.

My friend, Jayme, did just that when she took a trip from Orange County, CA, to Montana with her parents recently. A stop-over in Salt Lake City (SLC) was required. The SLC airport has multiple lengthy terminals that intersect in the center. Jayme’s parents are both in their eighties and had not done any traveling for some time. Jayme was smart enough to arrange to be met at the stopover point with a wheelchair for each of them. Two attendants were waiting with friendly smiles. As they both sat down, Jayme’s mom told the young man, “Let’s race and I want to win.” She was just being funny, but the two attendants took it to heart. Off they went on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Speeding through the terminals, past slower people, around those standing in groups, down ramps (facing backwards so they didn’t fall out of the chair), up ramps, right through lines of people, and finally to their next gate! They made their next flight in plenty of time, and their adrenaline was definitely up. Oh, by the way, mom won the race.

Racing in the Airport

Wheel Chair riders can be competitive about who gets to the destination first.

The picture here is not actually Jayme’s parents but it does give you an idea of what a sight it was. (Jayme, like me, wasn’t prepared with a selfie stick to shoot the photo.)

Of course, Jayme was the person left toting the carry-on baggage and, in spite of the fact that she’s a young spring chicken (48 or so), she was out of breath by the time they reached the departure gate. Her parents, however, were laughing and having a wonderful time.

There is a great book called the Air Travel Guide for Seniors and Disabled Passengers available at Amazon. Click here to see a copy. 

Air travel book

A wonderful book for seniors who want to travel

It is a useful resource for anyone planning some travel by air. You don’t have to be a regular user of a wheelchair or other mobility device to benefit from asking for wheelchair assistance at the airport or anywhere else. I highly recommend reading this book before your next flight. It is a one-stop information source for senior or disabled air travelers with reduced mobility or special medical conditions. You can get a copy for just one dollar at It is helpful to people with the following issues:

  • cane, crutch or wheelchair users, or anyone with reduced mobility
  • those who travel with prescription medications
  • anyone with an injury or special medical condition
  • wheelchair users
  • diabetics
  • people who travel with oxygen
  • sight- or hearing-impaired individuals

The book is also a very useful source for more generalized medical information related to travel and contains contact information for numerous companies and organizations offering special services for senior and disabled travelers.

I was farsighted enough to use a wheelchair on our last trip to Disneyland. I had just had surgery and knew I didn’t have the stamina for walking all over the park. Without the wheelchair, I would have been a drain on the group. As it was, the chair made me extremely popular. The younger grandchildren rode on my lap when they got tired and everyone piled their sweaters, hats and souvenirs on my lap.

Carrying everyone's stuff

When a wheelchair user becomes a repository for everybody’s stuff

Overcome any embarrassment you might feel about needing to use a wheelchair. It is more important to continue to travel than it is to try to maintain the illusion that you don’t need any help. Asking for help is far better than staying home.

There is one other element of airplane travel that isn’t covered in the book I recommended above and that is becoming more and more common as plane seats and the space around them shrink. That problem is claustrophobia. Most of us suffer a bit of it on today’s airplanes unless we are fortunate enough to always travel first class. But people with even mild dementia are far more prone to have a problem with this issue. And for people with moderate dementia, like Bill, it is a deal breaker. We had to give up plane travel this last year. Before you give up, try some of these methods that we, or friends of ours, have tried:

  • Medication for anxiety (This worked for a while for Bill.)crowded-flight
  • Aisle seats
  • Window seats
  • Constant massage by seat mate (This method got Bill and I through a long flight but it was exhausting for the masseuse: Janet)
  • Headphones with relaxation tapes or music
  • Hypnosis

Some of these treatments helped a little, some not so much. massage-on-planeThey were able to extend the time when Bill could travel on a plane but none work now that the dementia has progressed. If anyone has a suggestion for something we haven’t tried, put it in the comments section. In the meantime, we are using other forms of transportation and picking travel to less-distant places. We also watch more travel shows on TV and serve appropriate food to the location featured. With a good imagination, we can at least extend the period of time when travel can be one of the pleasures of life.

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