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Pam LeBlanc picturePam LeBlanc writes about fitness and travel for the Austin American-Statesman. She has worked for the Statesman since 1998 and written her weekly fitness column, Fit City, since 2004. She also writes a monthly car review with Pete Szilagyi called Pete ‘n Pam.

Pam rides a bicycle to work, swims on a team and runs with her girlfriends. All her hobbies, from scuba diving to horseback riding and snow skiing, involve bulky gear. She lives in Austin with her husband, who is really good at applying bandages and ice packs.

Last summer, I planned a road trip with my mom, who was 74 at the time. Now I realize this isn’t possible for many people with elderly parents, as it happens a friend of mine recently needed to research into places such as this space for senior living in Tulsa and others due to her mother of 71 needing professional care more often than my friend was able to provide.

We’d drive from her home in South Haven, Mich., north to St. Ignace. We’d stay a couple of nights there, taking a ferry to Mackinac Island, where I worked one summer when I was a college student. Then we’d trickle back south, pausing for a night in Traverse City.

We could handle small towns and wide open spaces, I thought, better than bustling cities.

I learned something, though. While that trip had its fabulous moments – my mom checking her walker at the door and the two of us laughing our way through a House of Mirrors, for one – it turned out that, for us, big-city travel was in many ways easier than small-town exploration.

First, some background. My mom has leukemia and battles fatigue. Me? I can barely sit still for 15 minutes. The combination makes for an interesting travel challenge. But during the past two decades, we’ve logged jaunts to Ireland, Germany, England and France, and we didn’t want to stop.

Our trip wasn’t without hiccups. After a lively day on Mackinac Island, Mom woke up the next morning exhausted. We piled into the car for the two-hour drive to Traverse City, where she didn’t have much energy left. We visited a few shops downtown and then retreated to our hotel room. The next morning, we headed back home. I think she snored the whole way.

I took a different tack this spring, when I decided a long weekend in the Windy City might work better. And it did.

My aunt delivered my mom right to the hotel I booked inside the Loop, the hub of activity in downtown Chicago. The historic old Palmer House is located within a block’s walk of some wonderful ethnic restaurants and has a huge, lively lobby, where we could kick back with drinks and engage in some fabulous people watching.

Pam LeBlanc's mom in Chicago

Mary Lou Coleman, mother of Pam LeBlanc, checking out the Bean in Chicago.

Best of all, the hotel is just down the street from the Art Institute of Chicago, where we checked out a free wheelchair so Mom didn’t have to walk with her cane miles through the museum. And when she needed to rest back at the hotel, I could go for a run along the lakeshore or zip into nearby shops.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned about traveling with an elderly person? Scale back and slow down. Plan rest time. Don’t overstuff your schedule. Be realistic about how much walking and exploring your companion can do.

I checked with some Austin experts to get their tips, too.

Faith Unger, project coordinator for CaregiverU, an education program at the nonprofit AGE of Central Texas, recently traveled to Denver with her elderly husband, who has a cognitive disability.

“I have three adult children, and they love us to visit. I don’t want to stop that, but at the same time I want to make sure it’s manageable,” Unger says.

Among her suggestions? Whatever the destination, research the resources available there, such as respite centers and in-home health care.

Your loved one will be a happier traveler if you keep her schedule similar to what she is used to, especially if she has cognitive issues.

“Many of us who are healthy mentally like the spirit of adventure, a wide-open agenda. That’s entirely wrong for someone with a cognitive disability,” Unger says. “They like things very structured, very concrete.”

If you’re visiting a place where you have friends or family, try to arrange for a morning or afternoon where your loved one can stay in and you can take off with some spontaneity.

Communicate your needs clearly. While going through security screening at the airport, Unger alerted employees that her husband had a cognitive disability and the process might make him anxious. The screener took steps to make sure he was more comfortable.

The planning paid off for Unger, who rated her trip a success.

Tam Cummings, an Austin gerontologist, offered a few more tips.

First, check with your loved one’s doctor to make sure he thinks a trip is a good idea.

When choosing a destination, think about mobility. “Do you have an 80-year-old grandma who can trek across the Himalayas or someone who needs a wheelchair at the airport to make the transfer to the next plane?” Cummings says.

Finally, be flexible. Remember that your traditional yearly trip may now be too overwhelming. “Mom loved Broadway, so now instead of New York City, maybe you go to Austin to see a play,” Cummings says.