I noticed when mom turned 76 or 77, she started having challenges packing her suitcase for our trips together. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way in Bangkok, Thailand when we were preparing to go out for food after a post-arrival nap. When getting dressed, mom realized she hadn’t packed any shirts or underwear. As mom was not a size 4, shopping in Bangkok was not an option so we had to share the few items that I brought (being the minimalist packer that I am). A $500 hotel laundry bill later, I made a mental note to assist mom with packing even without living in the same city. The good news? It’s quite doable and the first time is the hardest as you can reuse the same lists (adding and subtracting as needed) going forward.

Well in advance of your trip, start keeping lists of whatever you think your parent might want or need to bring. Starting them early (for you and your parent) gives you plenty of time to revisit and edit them as needed. When you’re a few days out from departure, you’ll have a much easier time packing your own bags—and helping your parent prepare his or her luggage, as well.

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This is perhaps the most critical category on your packing list. Many seniors require certain medications or specialized equipment, and some of these items can be difficult (if not impossible) to obtain in another country. So be sure your parent has enough of these supplies to last for the entire trip, as well as extra medication in case of emergency (and to get your parent settled back at home following the trip).

Your parent should bring all medications (both over-the-counter ones and prescriptions) in a carry-on bag so that they’ll be available if they’re needed in transit. This also ensures that a lost or delayed piece of checked baggage won’t interrupt Mom’s medication schedule.

Make sure all medications are in their original packaging, not in a pillbox. (This is an essential practice for prescriptions, but a good idea for over-the-counter items as well.) I also found this out the hard way after being stopped in Chinese customs. We were not allowed in-country until I returned over 200 pills to their respective prescription bottles and provided a doctor’s note (which I fortunately always carry when traveling with mom). There is enough stress going through security let along when you encounter problems because the customs officials can’t identify Dad’s pills.

Carry hard-copy versions of the following documents (and have electronic versions parked at an e-mail account you can access from anywhere in the world, in case the paper copies are lost):

  • Prescription refill forms for all of your parent’s doctor-prescribed medications. They can serve as verification (if requested by security or customs staff) of the medications Mom or Dad is carrying, and it’s also important to have them in case your parent needs to refill a prescription or has a medical emergency during your trip.
  • An updated list of all your parent’s prescription and nonprescription medications. Be sure to include each drug’s generic name in case you need to get a refill during your trip. Drugs have different brand names in different countries, and knowing the generic name will enable you to find what you need faster. (If you want to find Tylenol overseas, for example, you’ll need to ask for it by its internationally recognized generic name, paracematol.)
  • Contact information for all of your parent’s doctors.

In addition to prescriptions, travel medicine specialist Dr. Zeiger recommends bringing over-the-counter items to help with any heartburn, diarrhea, stomach issues, and the like that might arise because of changes to Mom or Dad’s diet or schedule. (See my interview with Dr. Zeiger for additional recommendations.)

Once you’ve made arrangements about your parent’s medications, don’t forget about his or her other medical-related items. When going through security at the airport, alert the personnel to any medical devices on your parent’s person, such as a pacemaker, hearing aid or hearing amplifier, or any medical-surgical implants. This can make all the difference to your airport experience. Furthermore, if Mom or Dad carries a device such as a walker or an oxygen tank, bring the doctor’s contact information and authorizing documentation to ensure a smooth transit through security and customs (see my previous post on additional details for going through security with an approved oxygen tank).

It’s also important to make sure your parent brings his or her Medicare card, any other health insurance cards, and two forms of ID in case of an emergency. Even though Medicare typically doesn’t cover international healthcare costs, it can’t hurt to bring a card during travel abroad, just in case (and your parent will definitely want to have it for domestic travel).

When figuring out which of Mom or Dad’s medical needs require special attention as part of your trip preparation, it’s best to play it safe: if you’re unsure how vital a piece of information or a certain medication is, put it on the list anyway. Prescriptions and other medical supplies aren’t necessarily easy to replace when traveling internationally. So do your best to be comprehensive. This is one situation when over-planning may be a good thing.

After you’ve accomplished all this, the hardest part of packing is finished. Now you have a moment to take a breath and pause for a moment before moving on to the next trip-preparation task: choosing clothes and other nonmedical items to take on the trip. Don’t worry—I have plenty of suggestions on that front, too! Tune in tomorrow!