As featured in North Hawaii News Oct 8, 2018
When I boarded the 7-hour flight from Denver to Kona, the last thing on my mind was caregiving. Having been up since a crazy early hour, I was in my own little world and my mind was full of basic logistics like snacks, reading material and getting my seat area disinfected. The woman next to me, however, had far more on her mind than her own comfort. She explained that she was caring for her husband with cognitive impairment and was flying him to the Big Island to see his grandchildren.
I think it was a nice twist of fate that we were sharing a row, as my sensitivity to the challenges they were facing made it easy for me to cooperate with her requests. She asked if he could switch seats in order to take his anti-anxiety medication and rest against the window. He was resistant with his wife and I knew that his response to a stranger would be different, so I pleasantly told him that we were about to take off and we needed to switch seats right away. I stood up, and he followed my lead. Within two minutes we were in our necessary places.
During this adventure, I couldn’t help but think of the changing flight experiences that our society is encountering now that America has over 15 million caregivers assisting older relatives. There are many reasons they would need to travel on a plane with their loved ones, from medical appointments to family reunions, and there is also a need for heightened sensitivity to those who are helping.
I read a study that said people are less irritated with you on a plane if you have a disruption, like a crying child, when you apologize. I tried it when my daughter was young, and the energy around us would soften, so it seemed to work. Acknowledging the challenge that everyone is facing connects us at the human level and we feel less like the person is being inconsiderate.
The tricky thing is that an adult with cognitive challenges isn’t easy to spot. How do you get the message across without putting the person needing care in an uncomfortable situation? Maybe they get a fabric sign to hang over the seat back explaining their predicament. The airlines may want to consider having special companion seating areas for those who are caring for someone with cognitive challenges. Being close to an area where the individual can get up and pace around a bit, or get to the restroom quickly even if there is cart service occurring, would be helpful. That would be very useful not only in consideration of what the person is going through, but also to understand that they would likely need special assistance in an emergency.
I recently heard a keynote speaker from Washington D.C. who has studied public policy in the aging industry for over two decades. He said something I found very surprising: Demographics don’t necessarily drive change.
The number of older adults in our country has risen exponentially, but the services and policies are not keeping up. We actually have fewer geriatric physicians (geriatricians) than we did 10 years ago. How is that possible? I believe that is the most needed area of medical expertise in our country today.
What I have gleamed from this realization is that it is upon us to create the change we want to see. Taking it upon ourselves to notify those around us of the situation we are in is a great place to start. And if any of you have a connection to the airline industry, please encourage them to consider ways to keep our treasured caregivers supported through travel. They are often older themselves, and basic navigation of what seems to many of us to be a simplified check in process may not be so cut and dry when they can’t figure out how to get their phones into airplane mode, let alone get the seats that will make their flight smoother.