Mari Guerra asks:
Hi, can you please guide me as how to prepare to travel abroad with my 80 year old father who had an enlarged prostate (catheter) and mild Alzheimer’s.
Delighted to help Mari! And bravo to you for including your father in your travel plans. I actually think this may be easier than you think.
In conjunction with your father, I recommend chatting with your father’s doctor first to ensure he’s physically and mentally up for travel. Ask if there are any precautions you should take to make it easier on your father (such as traveling during the day vs. at night). Once the doctor’s cleared your father, you’re off to the races!
By the way, know that this can be a dicey discussion depending on your dad’s personality. I routinely go with mom to her doctor’s appointments and my mother has signed a form that allows the doctors to discuss medical details with me. If that’s not something you do on a regular basis (and your dad hasn’t signed a medical consent form), your father may feel you’re micromanaging him by “forcing” him to go to the doctor (and bringing you along). Stress to your dad that a 2nd set of ears is not a bad thing and that you can take notes while he asks the questions. You may even want to type up the questions you have and let him take the lead in asking them (this way, he’s controlling the situation).
Remember, no adult wants to be treated like a child. So let him know that it’s all about being prepared should an emergency arise and having more information before you go will be incredibly helpful (which is the truth). I’ve shared my medical history with my mom so she feels like we’re on a level playing field. For additional information on medical preparations, check out my blog Vital Paperwork when Traveling with an Aging Parent.
Regarding traveling with mild Alzheimer’s, take a peek at a two-part series I did on traveling on this topic:
- In Part 1, I discuss general considerations to think about as well as establishing expectations for family members while traveling with a parent who has dementia.
- In Part 2, I discuss lodging arrangements, getting to your destination and how to have a great time once you arrive.
I think you’ll find a lot of useful details in there, but two key take-aways from these posts:
- Changes in routine can trigger episodes of wandering and/or more advanced dementia symptoms than you are used to. Plan on staying close to your father, particularly in the airport where the noise and frantic pace can overwhelm even the most seasoned of travelers.
- Once you land at your vacation destination, establish a new routine as quickly as possible. This will help settle your father and to keep more advanced dementia symptoms at bay.
Pre-Flight Preparations for Traveling with a Catheter
First, it’s recommended that you inform the airline at time of booking that you’ll be traveling with a catheter and inquire if they have any special procedures you need to follow. Chances are no (as catheters are pretty self-contained), but as a best practice, letting them know ahead of time is advisable.
I also recommend getting an official letter from your father’s doctor indicating the requirement to use a catheter. Although I cannot image what TSA agent would think someone would opt for a catheter if they didn’t really need one, in this time of heightened security, being overly prepared can’t hurt. If your father is reluctant to do a pre-flight check-up, asking for a doctor’s note may be just the ticket to get him to go (or allow you to come with him).
Depending on the type of catheter your father uses, you may want to consider bringing disposable catheters so they can be tossed vs. needing to be cleaned between uses. Remember, the water in airplanes is not suitable for drinking, let alone cleaning any sort of medical device (and public restrooms are typically disgusting). That said, I would be worried about changing your father’s cathing routine (by switching to say a Foley catheter), so discuss with his doctor.
Ask your father’s doctor for information on connecting a catheter to a drainage bag, positioning while draining and caring for drainage bags.
Getting through Security with a Catheter
The Transportation Security Administration recommends contacting TSA Cares (toll free at 1-855-787-2227) at least 72 hours ahead of travel so they can walk you through any paperwork and/or direct you to a special lane that is better equipped to handle medical devices (definitely ask as they may send you through pre-check lanes which typically have less people and are faster!!).
I recommend you only carry enough catheters to get you to your destination (plus a few extras in the event of flight delays) and pack the rest in your checked luggage. For your carry-on luggage, pack catheters in a clear, plastic ziptop bag. If your catheter has a water packet or you use lubricant, they will also need to be placed in a clear bag. Doctor-prescribed liquids in excess of 3.4 ounces are allowed with proper medical documentation.
I highly recommend informing the TSA agents before putting your medical supplies through the x-ray machine. Same goes if you have an indwelling (Foley) catheter or are wearing a leg bag – alert security before going through the metal detectors. The TSA will typically do a pat down followed by testing for traces of explosive. You can request the pat down be done in private if you like. For more information, check out: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/travelers-disabilities-and-medical-conditions
My biggest piece of advice when it comes to getting through security as painlessly as possible: arrive early and avoid peak travel times. It’s just so much better to calmly and casually clear security vs. having hordes of people behind you sighing, rolling their eyes and just generally getting upset when we need additional time. I’ve had a couple of trips where mom’s legs were really bothering her and should couldn’t walk through the metal detector without holding on to the side. That’s a no-no and she had to instead go back in the wheelchair and then required a pat down before we were cleared.
The TSA was quite accommodating, but because we arrived early, it was no big deal for us. If we were running behind and about to miss our flight, I know I would start to get tense which is not good for mom (this is also very bad for someone with Alzheimer’s as they will pick up on your vibe and start to get anxious). My final thought is that there’s no reason to start the vacation off on a bad foot, particularly when issues can be avoided by arriving early. Buy a day pass to the airline club, go eat, bring a book or just hang out at the gate people watching (something mom loves to do).
Managing a Flight with a Catheter
Make sure there are no kinks in the catheter line when your father sits in his chair. Also make sure he drink plenty of water to remain hydrated on the plane but also to avoid infection (that is standard cathing protocol though). If you’re not aware of your father’s routine, his doctor can advise you on how much he should drink.
When researching this topic, I saw a lot of questions about how the leg bag and catheters in general respond to the increase and decrease in cabin pressure as the airplane climbs to altitude and descends to land. The good news? You shouldn’t experience any issues as fluids do not respond to pressure changes – it’s air that compresses. That’s why you see a partially empty water bottle scrunch up – it’s from the air in the bottle, not the water.
While on Vacation
For a multitude of reasons, always carry anti-bacterial wipes (hands and the urethra should be wiped off before cathing). I always have hand sanitizer with me as well just in case.
If your father prefers not to wear a leg bag, you may want to carry empty water bottles in your hand bag so your father can discreetly drain the catheter as needed (either on the plane or as you’re out touring at the destination). You can either empty them when you find a toilet or just toss the water bottle. This is also a great option when flying just in case the weather is bad and your father cannot get up to use the plane’s restroom. Larger bags are available as well that can hold more liquid (another possible solution for a long haul flight which encounters bad weather).
Additional Resources on Catheters
I recommend asking your father’s doctor for sites s/he recommends for additional information. A couple of sites I ran across while doing my research:
- Catheter Care for Caregivers
- Louis Calder Memorial Library of the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.
Good luck Mari and please share pictures with us of your vacation! I’m very excited for you!