In the past two decades, I’ve traveled to 23 countries, flying into enormous airports like Hong Kong International as well as tiny, hold-your-breath-during-landing spots in Zambia and Nepal. So I never imagined that a nonstop flight from Minneapolis to Miami would prompt my fiercest moments of travel frustration.
If I had been by myself, the trip would have been forgettable. But this time I’d been asked to accompany my 70-something aunt, who was nervous about flying alone. Of all the possible family members, I was chosen because of my seasoned traveling abilities. What I didn’t know was how to travel with someone facing multiple chronic health issues as well as a fear of flying.
In helping my aunt navigate her trip, I took a crash course in intense caregiving and ended up learning a great deal about my own limitations. I may have been an expert traveler, but when it came to being a caregiver, I turned out to be a total novice.
Getting to the airport
For years, my aunt wanted to escape the usual dreary, icy Midwest winter and visit her sister in Florida. But she was apprehensive about getting on an airplane because she has coronary artery disease and debilitating lower-back pain. She also struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), particularly about germs.
My plan was to speed her through the travel process as quickly as possible, so her concerns about flying wouldn’t have time to fester. I’d advised her in advance to pack light, bringing only a carry-on bag, and drink plenty of water the day before travel so she’d be more hydrated.
I also mentioned she should keep all medications in her purse, in their original prescription bottles, since that has the name of her doctor, dosage levels, and medication names.
When I got to her house with plenty of time for getting to the airport, I got my first cold splash of reality. She was in the garage, having a cigarette and a Diet Coke, still wearing her robe. Two large suitcases were sitting by the door, and her pills were all in plastic bags with the days of the week written on them in Sharpie.
Looking back, what I should have done was to sit with her and talk, gently, about what her concerns might be. I should have realized that she was smoking — to the horror of her cardiologist, had he known — because her stress levels were astronomically high, and that as her anxiety surged, it was likely driving up the pain in her back and her fears about having a heart attack in midair.
Instead, I became a drill sergeant, ordering her to snub out that smoke and get dressed quickly. “We have no time for this,” I kept saying, and she scurried to meet my demands. I acted as if traveling was a mundane-but-necessary task, like grocery shopping or doing your taxes. “You just have to get over your fears about this, it’s no big deal,” I said.
By the time we got to the airport and parked, she was on the verge of tears.
At the airport
Although I recognized she was in distress, I hurried us through the security screening process, already feeling peeved about having to check those suitcases. At some point, she’ll realize we’re all ready to go, and she’ll relax, I thought. She’s just agitated about making sure we’re on time.
But once we sat at the gate, with an hour until the flight, I was the only one who breathed a sign of relief. Finally, I could see that she was barely holding it together. I felt terrible — worse, I saw that all of my firmness and take-charge attitude was more bullying than supportive. After apologizing, I asked, “What can I do to help make this flight easier for you?”
Immediately, she asked me to take her bag off the floor, a major source of OCD anxiety for her. Then she said she wanted some fresh air.
To do that, we would have to leave the secured area, which meant going back through security, and possibly missing our flight. I glanced at the long stretch of people on the other side of the glass, slowly snaking through the security line. We only had 30 minutes until boarding, and it would take us at least that amount of time to return, all for just a couple minutes of outside air — not even fresh stuff, actually, since the closest area was clogged with cars.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Let’s go.”
What I learned in that moment of bringing her outside and back through security — arriving about two minutes before they closed the doors to the jetway — was that it didn’t matter if we missed our flight.
I’d been so focused on the details of the trip that I’d ignored the larger mission, which was to help her feel in control of the situation. She hadn’t ignored my instructions about how and what to pack; she simply wanted to have some agency instead of feeling pulled and pushed along without any decision-making power of her own.
As we traveled, I made sure to keep asking her what she wanted. Where should I put her bag? Which seat did she want? Did she want water to bring on the plane, or would that make her nervous about having to visit the restroom while in flight? The more she decided, the higher her level of control became, and her anxiety began to ease.
The trip still had its challenging moments, but they were no longer because I was “in charge” of the experience. I learned that being a caregiver on the go means traveling together, as a team, so that we could both have a better journey.