The only thing worse than having your own medical emergency while on vacation is standing by while someone with whom you cannot communicate works on your parent who is having a medical emergency. (Even if you speak the language of your destination, understanding advanced medical terminology can still pose challenges.) Unfortunately, I experienced this firsthand with my mom during trips to Spain, Cambodia, and China. These events taught me that the most critical part of traveling with an elderly parent is preparing for a medical emergency before you go on your trip. Being prepared can go a long way toward helping you handle both chronic medical conditions and issues that come up during your trip. Read on for vital paperwork when traveling with an aging parent.

Before hopping on a plane, it’s helpful to “interview” your parent, compiling the following information:

  • A precise list of your parent’s medications (both those prescribed by a doctor and over-the-counter drugs) and the dosage amount, dosage schedule, and generic name for each one. Any special handling requirements are important as well, such as whether a medicine requires refrigeration or must be administered via syringes. Carry a copy of this list with you at all times in the event that something happens and your parent must visit the emergency room immediately—before you can return to your hotel to retrieve documents left there. If you’re traveling to a foreign country, make sure you include the medications’ generic names, because the brands your parent uses may not be known there. (For example, overseas doctors will probably be unfamiliar with Tylenol but will definitely recognize its generic names, acetaminophen and paracetamol.) Also be sure to explain why your parent is taking each medication. The medical information document I maintain for Mom, for example, includes “metformin—for type 2 diabetes.”
  • Contact information for all of your parent’s doctors—even those for seemingly one-off medical issues. (You never know what might rear its ugly head during your vacation!) Most doctors have an emergency paging service, so be sure to get that information as well in case you need to contact a doctor during off hours.
  • A list of all your parent’s allergies (e.g., medicines, foods, airborne allergens). The list should also include warning signs of an aggravated condition, as well as information on what to do if your parent has a serious flare-up.
  • A list of your parent’s existing medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, heart murmur, anemia, lung disease). As with allergy flare-ups, be sure to include information to help you recognize and respond to any warning signs of danger.
  • A copy of your parent’s health-care policy (including policy numbers and contact phone numbers). Before leaving for vacation, check with the provider to find out what coverage your parent has outside the U.S. In the likely event that the policy doesn’t cover overseas incidents, you may want to look into supplemental medical insurance for the trip.

Although this may seem like a lot of work, once you’ve compiled this list the first time, keeping it up to date is fairly simple. Put all of your parent’s medical information into one document and carry it with you at all times. I know I said that earlier, but it’s important enough to state twice. Or even three times: always have this document with you!

Don’t forget to bring your own prescription and doctor information with you, too. I was glad to have that information on hand when I found myself in the emergency room in Malaysia after a monkey bit me and I needed to contact my travel doctor immediately. (He confirmed my hunch that I had to get rabies shots right away, while I was still in Malaysia, and then see him upon my return to New York City.) I was “lucky” in this situation, because I was fully awake and able to manage my own care. Not everyone is so fortunate, however, so make sure your parents know where your medical information is in case you’re knocked unconscious (or can’t communicate for other reasons) and they need to help you get medical care.
vital paperwork when traveling with an aging parent

The second most important document to carry with you during your travels is a list of hospitals in the areas you’re visiting. Although the staff at your hotel can surely direct you to a nearby hospital, if an emergency occurs while you’re out and about touring, you may have a hard time finding that information on the fly—for example, your cab driver might not be able to understand you. As part of my trip preparations I do my own research on hospital locations, and when I arrive at my destination, if it’s in a foreign country, I ask the hotel staff to translate those hospital names and addresses into the local language. I carry that list along with the hotel’s contact information (which I also make sure to have in both English and the local language) so I can always get to where I need to go. When traveling with Mom, I find it better to be unnecessarily overprepared rather than be underprepared if an emergency does arise.

vital paperwork when traveling with an aging parentLast—but not least—be sure to carry a copy of everyone’s passports (leaving the originals in the hotel’s safe or other secure location) with you at all times, even when you’re just out sightseeing for a day. Most health-care facilities will ask to see your passport (and will accept a copy of it) before they provide treatment. Although a passport isn’t a universal requirement, carrying around a couple of pieces of paper is only mildly inconvenient compared to not being able to provide requested documentation in the event of an emergency. In other words, better safe than sorry!

Any other documents you recommend bringing with you?  Would love to hear suggestions!