A #TravelSelfie of the author and her mom on the road. (Photo: Erica Bray)
My mother got her first passport at the age of 53, one year after she suffered a stroke that stripped her of speech and left her with weakened mobility. Most people in her situation might not have been motivated to travel, but even though she wasn’t able to articulate it into words, it was clear to me that she harbored a newfound curiosity to explore. As her globetrotting daughter, I encouraged it with vigor, even if I did so with some hesitation about whether it was “appropriate.”
I booked us a trip to Paris. It was her first trip overseas. Ever.
Mom and daughter’s first trip to Europe. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Fast-forward to today: We’ve since traveled together to London, taken a road trip through the Carolinas, and cruised on the Danube River to visit Europe’s Christmas markets. Who knows where we’ll go next?
These journeys with my mom have absolutely brought us closer. But what wows me is how travel has transformed this one-time homebody into a childlike lover of life, likely in part because she came so close to losing her life at 52.
As a daughter traveling with a disabled parent, however, I am always nervous. Traveling with her anywhere, just the two of us, can be daunting. My mother is an easy target for those with malicious motives. I am her 24/7 translator, interpreter, caretaker, and attached-at-the-hip chaperone.
This can be an exhausting mother-daughter role reversal, mainly because she still wants to play the role of mom and is so lovably stubborn. Still, I’ve learned so much through the process of traveling with her. Including the fact that disabilities needn’t hold anyone back from indulging in a little wanderlust.
Traveling has definitely brought mom and daughter closer together. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Here are some tips for sharing an adventure with a handicapped (non-wheelchair-bound) traveler, based on traveling with my mother post-stroke.
With my mother, I cannot travel at my usual swift pace. We experience one or two attractions per day, with a mandatory rest or nap each afternoon. Taking our time and not trying to cram so much into a day has allowed us to savor travel memories that otherwise might be a blur. It’s a beautiful reminder of why any vacation is better when not rushed.
Build in Buffer Time
I add at least one hour to “normal” travel times at airports, train stations, etc., because navigating crowds and lines with my handicapped mother (and all of our luggage) demands it.
Avoid Connecting Flights
This saves us the stress of potentially dashing from one terminal to another, mainly because my mom cannot “dash.”
Cruises are great for people with mobility challenges. A ship is a floating hotel that strings together multiple destinations, and endurance is really relegated to how active you want to be once in port. For instance, the Christmas market cruise we took with Viking River Cruises catered to my mother beautifully. The ship had an elevator, and port city tours had a “slower paced” group option, which my mom and I always joined.
Stumped for something to do? A cruise is a great option. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Related: 7 Ways to Stay Safe on a Cruise
Avoid Group Walking Tours
Most group walking tours can be a challenge, as my mom has a hard time keeping up. When we joined a Jack the Ripper walking tour while in London, the guide singled out my mother for slowing the group down. After shaming him for picking on a stroke survivor, I also recognized that he had a job to do. Since that episode, we’ve booked private walking tours of sites and cities, or opted for DIY tours with the assistance of a map (as private tours can get pricey). This allows us to see things at our pace, maintaining special attention to my mom’s needs without adding any “inconvenience” to others’ vacations.
Ride the Bus
Roaming a city for miles and miles is a passion of mine but would be painfully exhausting for my mom. So we often hop on a bus to get around. Whether it’s a public bus or a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus, we enjoy watching the scenery and landmarks pass by.
Budapest’s Hop On—Hop Off tours were ideal. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Locate the Elevators
My mom needs to avoid climbing stairs. When prebooking hotels and exploring landmarks and city subways, I proactively ask about elevators. And when a public elevator isn’t available, I ask about a freight elevator.
Medical Note and Safety Numbers
We keep a special note in my mom’s travel pouch that explains her condition of aphasia (a loss of speech, not of intellect) — just in case she gets asked — as well as a list of family telephone numbers.
Make Friends With the Concierge
Hotel concierges are a great resource for places and ways to best accommodate my mom. I always introduce us at check-in and ask them to “keep an eye” on her. Most of the time, they go out of their way to help. One concerned concierge in Munich even escorted us to the train station down the street, even rolling our luggage.
Monitor Meals and Medication
I make sure we always have a breakfast to start the day, plus lunch and dinner — even when she insists that she’s not hungry. The sit-down meals give us an opportunity to rest and refuel, which is something I don’t always do when traveling on my own.
Keep Her Involved
I always bring a travel guide with pictures. This way, if there is something that my mom really wants to do or see, she can flip to the page with the appropriate photograph. It saves her the frustration that comes with trying to verbally communicate her desires.
Pay Attention, 24/7
I have to remember that these vacations are not just about me. It’s our vacation, with my mom’s safety in my hands. I nearly lost my mother while visiting a market in Vienna because of a lapse in responsibility. I had turned away for a few minutes, and she got lost in the crowd. For the hour or so that she was lost, I felt like the world’s worst daughter. We ultimately reunited with the help of Austrian police, but it was a scary reminder to keep her in view at all times.
When challenges and frustrations arise on the road, springing from my mother’s stubbornness, slowness, or inability to voice what she wants, I need to gather as much patience and empathy as is stockpiled for the day and remember what’s at stake: precious memories. When I think about what it was like to almost lose her to a stroke, it makes the silly travel hiccups laughable.
The memories are always worth the added stress. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Here are some additional resources to help plan travel with someone requiring extra attention:
U.S. Department of State: Advice, resources, and tips for travelers with disabilities.
Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH): Provides a database of companies and resources to assist people with disabilities in all facets of travel.
Mobility International USA: The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) offers information for disabled travelers looking to study, teach, or volunteer abroad.
DisabledTravelers.com: A resource of accessible travel information.
Flying with Disability: Advice on how to make flying with a disability easier.
Emerging Horizons: Travel information for wheelchair users and slow walkers.
TripAdvisor: Consult other travelers with specific questions using its online Q&A forums.
American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA): Search for travel agents who specialize in disability and accessible travel.
Accessible Europe: Tours across Europe, Asia, and Africa that cater to travelers with special needs.
Accessible Journeys: Vacation planner for wheelchair travelers, their families, and their friends.
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): If you think you’ve been discriminated against (such as not being allowed on a U.S. tour company’s trip to Europe because of a disability), call (800) 514-0301 or visit the ADA website.
Erica Bray is a digital content strategist, writer, and yoga teacher based in Chicago. Her mom is still deciding where she wants to go next: Alaska, Portugal, Russia, or Norway. Stay tuned.