Travel with Dr. Jean: Preparing for takeoff

From compression socks to a proper backpack, there are some travel items that you should never forget as a senior traveller. But don’t worry, Dr. Jean has you covered. 


  • Aug 16, 2022
  • 1,306 words
  • 6 minutes
Photo: Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash
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“Is there a doctor aboard?”

No one on an overseas flight wants to hear those words, but I was already primed by the frantic sounds of a distressed woman passenger and was on the move to help. The flight attendant directed me to the elderly couple. She was frightened, clutching his hand while he was unresponsive to her pleas.

I appraised him and took his other hand to get his pulse. Irregular but steady and breathing okay. As I asked his wife about his medical history, he opened his eyes, gazed steadily at me, smiled and said, “hello”.

Aside from asking the pilot to put the plane down in Gander, what can we learn from this event?

Preparing for travel at a senior age can be a daunting and stressful task. Medications, health records and adequate supplies to support mobility can make organization and planning a nightmare. But with these tips and tricks you can be sure to have everything you need to enjoy your vacation and make the most of your time away stress-free. 

Make sure your medical history is accessible

Today’s technology makes it easy to have your medical history on your phone. Hospitals encourage patients to access all their medical records online, including consultations, lab tests, and imaging reports. They are downloaded into “Your Chart” or “My Records” even before your physician’s office receives the documents. Patients returning home from vacations often present complete records to me, a blessing for follow-up care.

Your kids can summarize your extensive medical histories and add them to your wallet along with your boarding pass, vaccination record, and credit cards. If you need assistance, get your kids to help you so you have the comfort of click and open. It’s all there and so very reassuring.

You will already have your medications with your handbag or backpack, but writing notes and having them handy will provide any caregiver with the schedule of medications you are taking, including non-prescription supplements. So much better than “½ blue pill, 2 orange pills”.

Update your  family on where you are going

Even if you are only travelling to see relatives, make sure the addresses, phone numbers and dates of your travel destination(s) have been documented and sent to your family members. I find that even my 60-year-old patients raring to leave, have to make care arrangements for their elderly parents. Or make sure that they can be reached in the event of…

I never discourage someone from travelling unless there is a sudden critical illness in an elderly parent. Assuming funeral arrangements have long since been made, there is no urgent need to race home. The pandemic taught us that, and in truth, it’s the celebration of life that matters.

Consider the length of the flight 

Back to the plane. Investing in compression knee-high stockings for your long overseas flights, even long road trips will offset painful foot-swelling caused by sitting for hours. My husband and I never take our hiking boots off on those night flights. We knew if we did, we would be limping off the plane, barely able to cram our feet back into those boots. But compression knee highs with an expansive range of squeeze are a godsend. Even executive support hose will work, and diabetics will welcome firm supportive socks with no elastic tops.

Photo: Laurynas Mereckas/Unsplash
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Will you need a mobility aid?

Let’s assume you are going to be touring museums, gardens and ancient buildings. It quickly adds up your daily steps, often topping off well over 12,000. My patients confess to me the struggle they have navigating cobblestone paths, steep uphill access and creaky, narrow stairs with their own tricky knees, stiff hips or cranky backs. Packing that knee guard or soft ankle brace may be a lifesaver. Many facilities that cater to an older age group may have canes. Even better, they may even provide walking poles for hikes, but few have straps for ankles or braces for knees.

Recently, friends took their 90-year-old parents on a trip to France. It required them to bring along two walkers and a folding wheelchair, all packed in the cabin along with the rest of the baby strollers and the like. Once, I remember getting off a plane in Dubai and seeing 75+ wheelchairs lined up at the door. These were not for the Old Frails. They were for matriarchs. No schlepping through the Dubai airport for these elegant, black-robed women. I provide many letters to patients requesting wheelchair transit through the long walkways to the gate. 

Airlines have stepped up quickly, recognizing that not only matriarchs but aging eager travellers need and demand this level of service  

From short excursions, with fixed lunch times and rest periods, many patients find themselves out all day on tour, often inadequately fuelled or watered. These days we send all our kids off to school with water bottles, but rarely do you see elders dangling water bottles off their shoulders.

Speaking of shoulders and backpacks, we’ve known for a long time that shoulder bags stress necks and upper bodies with their asymmetrical loading. So yes, a small backpack will provide you with a more comfortable day’s outing, even if it’s a borrowed one from a grandchild.

Don’t forget the little things 

Travel documents, passport, money, contact information, phone, camera – all assumed.

Birdwatchers would never travel without binoculars and my husband travels with a bag of tech –  two to three pounds of cords, chargers, and plugs needed for his ubiquitous computer.

I pack the necessary wall plugs for electrical outlet converters and we always need two or more.  

You should also bag all your pills for easy removal going through security, and if you are travelling with opiates for chronic pain states, be sure you have a letter from your doctor that declares exactly what you are carrying. Use separate bags for cosmetics (all travel sizes) to ease the confusion for you and the security staff. Pack your own lotion and shampoo. Unless you are five-star all the way, your skin will thank you for familiar lotions and cleansers.

Your glucometer goes in your backpack and the INR test kit (for blood thinning monitoring) can go in baggage. Eating and drinking abroad can wreak havoc with your sugars and your INR readings so be more watchful of the numbers and adjust.

Sunscreen. Make it SP50 at least (88 ml is the maximum) and sunglasses for sure. Add a hat for balding pates and exposed ears and the back of necks that never seem to get a swath of cream.

Also, a shawl or scarf is often a godsend – a covering to enter religious buildings, a throw over shoulders in too chilly AC, a dash of colour at day’s end sitting for dinner or drinks. Small fold-up umbrellas or even packaged ponchos cover possible rain days.

If you are planning to hike almost anywhere in North America or Europe now, be mindful of ticks and tuck in your tick-removing tweezers. Be mindful as well to check your entire body as you get ready for bed. To learn how to spot ticks, check here.

Towelettes for hand cleansing and insect repellant are easy to pack.

Finally, there are lots of remedies for bladder leaks and incontinence mishaps. Packing some extra minipads in your backpack will offset the sneezing issue but very useful undergarments are now guaranteed to hold up to 2 oz or 60 ml of urine. These are not Depends. They are underwear, colourful, fashionable washable and overnight dryable.

That will fill your backpack nicely and if you are of a mind to be super-prepared, you can add antihistamine, After Bite, ChapStick, a packable sewing kit, floss and a Canada pin. 


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