Christine Wilson is a wife, mom of two young boys, and the Founder & CEO of MtoM Consulting, LLC. She and I have enjoyed working together to launch this blog. During the process she told me about a trip she took with her grandmother in 2010 that resonated with me about the lack of information available for planning to travel with an aging relative.

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By Christine Wilson, Arlington, VA

Grandma and Grandpa in their backyard at their Cape Cod home.

Grandma and Grandpa in the backyard of their Cape Cod home.

I have spent my whole life going to Cape Cod with my family in the summer to visit my grandparents. In fact, I have never missed a summer in 36 years and it is truly my happiest place on earth. In the summer of 2010 I had a 1 year old son, Ronan, and was in the first trimester of my pregnancy with my second son. My grandpa had recently passed away and my 91 year old Grandma had moved to assisted living near my home in Virginia. I was determined to get up to the Cape and spend as much time there as possible that summer. I knew my grandma was suffering without my grandpa around and living in a foreign environment that wasn’t home. I was so excited to take her up to the Cape with me to her home. I anticipated a summer like all of the others I had known. I knew we would miss Grandpa’s cooking and big personality, but thought the time with Ronan and Grandma at the beach, our favorite restaurants, sitting in the backyard, and shopping would be special.

I did very little to prepare for the trip except for packing Ronan’s diapers and clothes for us all. My husband and mom planned to meet us later in the summer, so I was on my own with Ronan and Grandma for the 12 hour drive. I packed us in the minivan and took off with visions of the beach and fried clams. It only took about 2 hours to realize that I was completely unprepared. Grandma was anxious before the first rest stop and seemed very confused when we went in to the restroom. She was in the bathroom for a long time and I was reluctant to leave her but couldn’t keep Ronan from running and touching everything disgusting. She didn’t want to eat lunch and was agitated about getting back in the car. I kept trying to reason with her because I couldn’t understand why she was behaving so poorly. Didn’t she see that I had my hands full with chasing Ronan? By the time we got to her home on the Cape I was beyond exhausted but still very hopeful for a great month at the beach. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.

Happy days on the beach with Grandma, Mom, Grandpa, and Ronan.

Happy days on the beach with Grandma, Mom, Grandpa, and Ronan.

Within two days of arriving I began to suffer from morning sickness and could barely sit up in the morning. Ronan woke up between 5-6 am and I was not doing well. Grandma said that she was happy to be home but she also seemed very sad when she looked at all of the pictures of my grandpa. I quickly noticed that her clothes were often hanging in the shower because she was urinating in her pants. She was wearing the clothes again when they dried and she wasn’t showering. One morning I found a pan on the hot stove with nothing in it and she was sitting in her room. Grandma wasn’t able to make a simple dinner but was very angry that I was cooking in her kitchen. I vacillated between deferring to her as my elder and my hostess and treating her like a child. Both made her frustrated and angry. When my mom finally got to the Cape, she and her mother began to argue and it escalated very quickly to shouting and door slamming by Grandma. We were all upset and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get Grandma to leave the house and she definitely did not want to see the beach. I was nervous to leave her all day, but also had to get away and entertain Ronan. I managed to enjoy many parts of the trip but knew I could never bring Grandma back to the Cape on my own.

Looking back I made so many mistakes on this trip with my aging grandma. She was 91 years old and had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. We knew she forgot things occasionally, but my grandpa had covered for her so well, that we had no idea that she was so confused. Before taking a trip with your aging relative, be sure to take them for a check up and discuss your travel plans with their doctor. Be sure that they can endure the rigors of a long drive or flight. It is also important to know if a change of location and routine will upset someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. If they have incontinence, bring along Depends and have a plan for a tactful way to replace soiled clothes. It is also very important to be sure that the aging relative won’t put young children at risk, like with the hot pan left on the stove. I think with proper planning and expectations we may have had a great trip. I will forever treasure my time on the Cape with my grandparents and for all of the joy they gave me in life!