This is the second time I have flown with my 92 year-old mom, using a wheelchair attendant. The packing process, with the aid of a pack-list provided by by my sister Nancy, went smoothly. Actually, verything about the actual tripwent very easily except for a problem going through the TSA, and a rude wheelchair attendant rushing us through that process.
The two trips I have taken with my mom, of course, do not qualify me as an expert on the subject of traveling with an elderly person. But the trips have certainly made me aware of some issues I was not aware of before. I would love to hear from others who have input on the subject! (If you have something to add, please write a paragraph or more and submit them to the “submit an article” link, on the home page of this website.)
I packed Mom’s bag the evening before (I had flown to Mom’s house the previous day and would stay over night there the night before the trip). My sister Nancy had left me a hard-copy packing list, fine-tuned to our mom’s particular likes and needs, divided into “suitcase” and “carry-on”. My sister had also quite a few of the items beside the suitcase, in piles, and hanging near-by. I checked each item off as I put things in, while Mom watched. Occasionally she would comment that she’d like to add a little something here or switch something there, and I was able to accommodate most of these little changes.
All Nancy’s prep made packing pretty easy. After we were done, I folded up the list and put in in the side pocket of her purse. Having the list where I could get to it easily turned out to be very helpful! The following morning, whenever she would ask, for instance, “Did we pack the black pants?” I could pull out the list and point to where we had checked it off, and say, “Look, we checked it off, it’s in the suitcase”. This went a long way in alleviating her anxiety. (She often asked several times about the same item.)
After packing the suitcase, I immediately put it (and her carry-on back-pack) , on a high shelf where she could not reach it! The reason I did this is because, on a previous trip, she had woken around 3 AM, unable to sleep, and completely re-packed her bags, but in a way that we could not take them on the plane (dividing her things into three bags instead of two, with some of the things she would need on the plane in all of the bags.) She also had gotten completely dressed, but omitted putting her bra, which was buried deep in the larger carry-on.) The result was that I had to hurriedly help her re-pack, that morning, leaving barely enough time for me to get ready myself and for us to have breakfast.
One thing that worked well, on the morning we were to leave on this trip. was to involve her in helping me, having her read me the items on my short last-minute “still-to”pack” list and check them off as I put them in. Asking her to help out with this last packing process of mine helped her stay involved and avoided her sitting there doing nothing and worrying about whether we had packed this or that item of hers.
Actually managing our two bags once we’d been dropped off at the airport turned out to be easier than I’d feared. The two light under-seat bags were slung over one shoulder, and mom’s roller carry-on had a handy short strap which I could hook my rolling carry-on on-to.
After my brother Sandy dropped us off at the airport, I asked an airplane employee who was taking a smoke break if she could take our picture, so that I could use the photo to demonstrate how easily it was for me to handle both carry-on size bags (which were strapped to eachother), with Mom’s small back-pack on my back and my cross-body under-seat purse, well, across my body. This kind African-American lady took three photos and kept saying over and over how beautiful we were, and then told us something which helped us out a lot. She told us that there was a special wheelchair counter in front of the terminal at the outside check-in counter.
I said, “I thought there was a window inside that you go to.”
“That’s only if you already have your boarding passes,” she said. (When I had checked at the window inside the day before if her window was where we should go, the young woman there had not mentioned that we would already need our boarding passes.)
We went to the outside wheelchair desk, and the employee was in the middle of helping another wheelchair person, and told us to get in the other (non-wheelchair) line.
“We have a wheelchair reservation, I said,” with calm politeness.
“Stand right there,” she said, almost rudely. “I can’t get to you yet I’m in the middle of another wheelchair.”
A minute later she brusqely asked for our itinerary and IDs. She made up for her lack of personality with efficiency. She took itinerary and IDs and asked how many bags we were checking and printed out the tags. Another employee strapped them on the bags, and it all happened so fast.
Checking the bags outside had the benefit of being faster; however the way I was rushed through the process it made me feel out of control and caused me to forget a basic step: checking for myself that the employee put the correct destination tags onto the checked baggage. (In the past, I’ve had bags go to the wrong city, because the employee put the wrong tags on the bag.)
The male employee who had strapped the tags to the bags wheeled Mom into the wheelchair inside (same window where I had been told to go to by an employee the day before but had since learned was only if you had your boarding passes)
Then came the difficult part. I know that most wheelchair attendants are niceness itself. The guy we used at the Atlanta airport on my previous trip with Mom, was wonderful. But the one I got this time was very brusque and rushed me through TSA so fast that I again felt out of control and couldn’t remember to put everything in the bins correctly. The fact that I forgot something caused him to feel he had the right to lecture me. However, we were soon at the gate (as soon as I tipped him I regretted it, as he had been so very rude, but having been a waitress in the past, it’s very difficult for me to “stiff” someone).
(I’ve developed a certain routine for going through the TSA over the years, and I think what bothered me the most was having that routine disrupted!)
The attendant delivered us to the gate, and things went very pleasantly from then on. We had the nicest time talking with the three other wheelchair people, all had quick lively minds, which made for a lively conversation.
A good thing about using a wheelchair attendant is that you are automatically in the early boarding group. If you do not use a wheelchair, you have to go up to the desk and ask for the early boarding privilege, before they call for early boarding.
The actual flight was very pleasant, and as it was a short flight, Mom did not have to use the restroom.
She did get a little irritated at the end of the flight, when I said we were waiting for every one else to get off the plane before we would get off! (She walks so very slowly, and has a tendency to stop to and start an affable chat with a stranger, while people are “chomping at the bit” behind her, so I think it’s only polite for us to get off the plane after everyone else.)
After getting to Idaho I talked to my sister-in-law Kathy about the upsetting experience with that wheelchair attendant, as Kathy would be accomplanying Mom home for the return trip. Kathy made a really good point; she said that the important thing was not to try to isolate just where things went wrong, because these things might change from trip to trip. Rather, she emphasized, the main thing was to be assertive whenever one felt uncomfortable from being rushed by any employee: to realize that one has a perfect right to say, “Wait. Stop! You’re rushing me so fast that I cannot think.”
I thought this was a really good point that my sister-in-law made.
While it’s true that for wheelchair attendants, time is money, it’s also true that they do not have a right to make your experience unpleasant or cause it to be more likely for you to forget things!
So far I have mentioned only the negative parts about traveling with an elderly person, but I must mention something very positive, and that is the kindness of strangers when they encounter someone very advanced in age! So many times during the journey, when airline employees and others encountered my mom, they were incredibly tender and sweet to her, from the employee who took the photo above, and on through the entire trip. Maybe it’s because Mom is so friendly and grateful to everyone, but I tend to think of it as an opportunity for me to glimpse the ways that people from many different cultures are sympathetic, and even sweetly sentimental, about elderly people. Perhaps it is because they are reminded of their own parents and grandparents.