Many of us don’t live in the same town where our parents are located so trying to assess your parent’s physical capabilities from afar can be a bit challenging. Actually, I won’t kid you: this is a hard topic to bring up (whether you live next door or 1,000 miles away) and one that everyone may be reluctant to discuss. However, ascertaining the physical capabilities of your aging parent or grandparent before you plan a joint vacation is critical to ensure that everyone has a good time (parents/grandparents included). Although diagnosing the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s requires medical training, you can try to ascertain whether your parents have any medical/physical issues that may affect their ability to go on vacation with you and enjoy their travels, especially with such a drastic change to their daily routines.

The ideal way to gather this sort of information is through firsthand observations and face-to-face conversations. If you and your parents live in different cities, however, you may want to make a special trip to visit them for just such a purpose. If that’s not an option, send your parents information about where you’re going together, then follow-up with questions about the itinerary to gauge their feelings and understanding about the trip. Pay attention to the answers. If your parent doesn’t remember that you’re going on vacation, that’s an indication of serious medical issues that require you to take him or her to a doctor instead of on a trip. If your parent cannot discuss basic details of current events widely covered on the news, that could also be a warning sign of possible medical problems. (My mom is not a big fan of TV—and especially the news, because she finds it so depressing¬¬—but she is aware of what’s going on in the world.) Another indication that your parent should see a doctor is if he or she seems to be withdrawing socially and no longer doing favorite activities or seeing friends. Again, only a doctor can diagnose a more serious medical condition. But anyone can and should do a rudimentary assessment (even over the phone) of a parent’s health before planning a trip together, just in case there are signs of any conditions that warrant a visit to the doctor.

This is how Mom prefers to roll while on vacation....

This is how Mom prefers to roll while on vacation….

If it’s just general anxiety that you’re hearing over the phone when you mention going somewhere new, don’t panic: this isn’t an uncommon response. Even after all the traveling Mom and I have done together (300,000+ miles and counting!), she still gets anxious and hesitant when I start discussing our next vacation together. Your goal is to assuage your parents’ fears and get them excited — rather than worried — about the trip. Your parents might reveal their anxiety by peppering you with lots of questions or making negative comments about the trip location or the vacation in general. This anxiety likely results from them feeling overwhelmed about figuring how to get there and the other details of vacation planning. This is definitely true for my mom: she doesn’t have Internet access, so she has no idea how to even book a flight these days! Through experience, I’ve found that the only way to reduce Mom’s stress level in the early stages of trip planning is to remind her that I’ll handle everything (all of the planning and, depending on the budget, some of the big expenses)—and then to follow through on that promise.

If you’re not sure what your parents’ physical capabilities are, ask them about any of their regular activities and about their social events with friends. A decrease in their participation level could mean that they aren’t as active as they used to be — and that you’ll need to slow down while in transit and adjust your activities at your destination. Sometimes a more direct approach works best: ask your parents how many stairs they climb in a day (or how many they think they can climb). Explain that you want to gauge their interest in and ability to do the activities you’re considering for your vacation together.

Assessing a parent’s physical abilities doesn’t have to be a secret when the goal is to make sure that everyone has a good time while on vacation. The key is not to ask only simple yes-or-no questions (such as “Are you able to walk?”) but to ask many open-ended questions (such as “How do you feel after standing on your feet in a museum for an hour?”) that will give you a real picture of what your parents can (and can’t) do.