Helping Older Adults Manage the Outside World

Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 26, 2021

The world can become a scary place for an elderly person. If you're a caregiver, these tips can help you help your loved one:

Know the route that Grandpa takes to their regular daytime activities.

Make sure Mom carries identification and your contact information with them whenever they are out of the house.

Check that your parent's or grandparent's car is well maintained. Check often for problems with windshield wipers, tires, and brakes.

Even those who drive safely by day may suffer night blindness, which is common among older adults. Ride along with your loved one periodically at different times of day to assess these skills.

AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) offers driver safety information. It's designed to help troubleshoot a lot of the problems older drivers develop, such as being blinded by bright headlights. One solution is getting your older parent special glare-reduction glasses.

Remove the distributor cap from Mom's car or take the keys if they shouldn't be driving but is being really stubborn about it. Loss of the ability to drive can be extremely upsetting for seniors -- many consider it to be the single most difficult change they face. Recognize this and work to set up practical transportation alternatives so Mom won't feel completely stranded.

Take the time to teach Dad necessary public transportation routes (to and from the senior center, for example). Accompany them the first few times to make sure they know what to do in case there are glitches.

Great gift idea: a small change purse filled with a supply of transportation tokens or the correct change if your mother's using a senior discount pass.

Many individual organizations provide transportation to and from their facilities or meetings. Examples are hospital or senior center shuttles, or church or synagogue carpools. Make sure to look into these options if Mom needs a way to get to the doctor's office or to religious services.

If you add up the expense of owning a car -- paying for insurance, gas, and maintenance, plus tolls -- it might not come out to much more than your parent would spend if they hired a private car service, assuming they don't drive more than a few times a week.

Arrange for a responsible teenager to help your parent on shopping trips and other excursions.

Some local stores may offer home delivery: groceries, pharmacies, laundries, and the like. Use these services as freely as possible. Keep their phone numbers with you at all times.

Get to know the people who see your parent or grandparent every day -- the neighbors, store owners, and mail carriers. They can be a valuable source of information when you need it.

When waiters are especially kind and patient with your party, be sure your gratitude is reflected in your tip.

"My daughter got her driver's license a few months ago, and of course she is always lobbying to borrow my car. We have a deal: if she takes her grandmother on an outing once a week (to the library or one of the other places Mom likes), then she gets the car for Saturday night. She's a pretty responsible driver anyway, but having my mother in the car reminds her to be extra careful. And while the museum with Grandma isn't as exciting as the movies with her friends, I think she and my mother both enjoy it."
- Rodney Banks

If Mom needs a walker but is too modest to make the change, they might just take a nice sturdy shopping cart with them when they go out. It won't take the place of a walker, but they may come to realize they do need the extra support that a walker can provide.

Twenty Outing Suggestions

1.Visit the library.
2.Wander through a museum (one that has rooms with places to sit).
3.Take in a movie.
4.Go to the theater.
5.Visit an aquarium.
6.Volunteer together at a library or anywhere in the community.
7.Get a manicure together.
8.Visit a florist or nursery just to smell the roses.
9.Take a walk in the park.
10.Attend a lecture.
11.Visit a friend at a nursing home.
12.Go to the opera.
13.Attend religious services.
14.Walk a dog from the local humane society.
15.Visit a cemetery.
16.Go to a child's recital, even if you don't know the child all that well.
17.Browse through a flea market.
18.Go to an animal shelter to watch the puppies and kittens.
19.Shop at the mall (one that offers free wheelchairs).
20.Hang out at a neighborhood coffee shop where you're likely to meet up with other older adults.

Try to take excursions during slow or off-peak hours if your loved one tends to get overwhelmed.

Many theater, opera, music, and other arts organizations have special senior discount programs.

Most malls, museums, and large parks make wheelchairs available to those who need them.

A doorway must be at least 32 inches wide in order for a wheelchair to fit through; check before you travel or visit if you suspect there might be a problem.

Get a portable folding seat to take on outings.

Search out movie theaters with easy access. Report those that are not disability- or senior-friendly to the local Area Agency on Aging.

Everybody has their typical high and low periods during the day. Schedule outings for the time of day when your loved one tends to have the most energy.

"It takes a while for Dad to get going in the morning, and he sometimes gets nervous and agitated later in the day, but he's most like himself in the late morning and midday. So once a week we go out for a little shopping and a nice lunch."
-Doug Benard

Seek out accommodating restaurants that offer senior discounts.

Bring snacks on outings. One with a good mix of carbohydrates and protein will keep everyone's energy and spirits up. Some suggestions:

  • Crackers and peanut butter
  • String cheese and an apple or orange
  • Energy bars
  • Trail mix

If your mother has a dog that they take on walks, make sure the pet has your contact information on their tags, just to be extra safe. Attach the tags to a reflective collar and leash to make the perfect "gift set" for Fido.

Waiters and waitresses can better help your party if they know what your special needs might be. Call ahead.

"We love taking Dad out to eat -- he's a gourmet from way back and thankfully has no dietary restrictions -- but it requires patience. And since I hate to embarrass him by explaining his situation out loud, I have printed up little cards that I hand to the person who seats us. It says, 'Please be patient with our party. My dad has memory problems and will need extra help with his order. Also, please remove the knife from his place setting and have his food cut up in the kitchen. We're grateful to you for your help.' This makes life easier for everyone, Dad maintains his dignity in public, and of course, we tip appropriately."
-Lorraine Ferber

Travel and Older Adults

Statistics tell us that active older adults are healthier older adults. Because they get so much out of the experience, it's a good idea to encourage vacations and trips when possible. Research the many books, organizations, and websites geared toward travel for older adults.

Elderhostel organizes terrific moderately priced adventure and learning programs -- including astronomy, zoology, and just about everything in between -- for people over the age of 55. There are many other travel agencies that specialize in travel for older adults.

For information about older adult and special-needs travel (including transportation, lodging, discounts, and wheelchair and scooter rental, among other things), visit The Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers can connect you with English-speaking doctors in almost any foreign country.

Check with airlines, trains, car rental agencies, and hotels about senior discounts.

How about a free vacation? Various government agencies as well as individual state park systems welcome older volunteers to work as campground hosts in exchange for free lodging. Your parents could volunteer for a day or a year. Contact National Park Service for more information.

You'll be thrilled to know that once your parents reach the age of seventy-five, their ski lift tickets are usually free!

Keep a travel bag in the car with the supplies and provisions you need often: a small bottle of water, wet wipes, and an extra pair of sunglasses, for example.

Make your own wet wipes by placing damp washcloths in plastic bags that seal.

Those little handheld fans can be a lifesaver if Mom has to wait in line for any period in a stuffy room or if it's hot out. Try to buy the kind that has a spray attachment for water so they get a cool mist as well as a breeze.

Before you and your parents travel to a foreign country, make sure you know about illnesses you might encounter in the country you're visiting. Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.

Because older adults are more susceptible to childhood and local diseases as well as the flu and pneumonia, it's important to consult a doctor about immunizations before setting off on vacations. In addition to getting your loved one those immunizations required by immigration laws, you should ask about other illnesses common to older travelers.

Before you take a trip, call your loved one's medical insurer to make sure that coverage will remain in place while you are traveling.

If Dad has special needs where lodging is concerned (such as wheelchair accessibility, specific types of linens), call ahead to make sure the room and grounds will accommodate their needs.

When traveling, always keep a list of important medical information with you: medications and their dosages, your loved one's doctor's name and phone number, insurance information, and someone to contact in case of emergency. Personal identification should be carried at all times. Even if you're traveling without your loved one, keep important information (their doctors' phone numbers, a list of their medications) handy in case long-distance caregiving becomes necessary.

Travel insurance ensures that you get a refund or rebooking if a medical or family crisis prevents traveling. Most -- but not all -- airlines will honor these situations whether or not you have travel insurance. Ask about their policies when you purchase your tickets.

Someone at home should have your travel itinerary so you can be contacted if necessary.

Order special meals on flights 48 hours in advance to make sure you're accommodated. Confirm your orders at the time you check in. Or consider bringing your own "picnic."

Most airlines will provide companions for older travelers.

When booking flights, ask for a bulkhead seat -- it's roomier.

If oxygen will be needed for a traveler with a cardiac condition, it should be ordered 48 hours before the flight.

When flying, make sure all important items, like medications, extra glasses, and so forth, are carried on along with a change of clothes.

Do not keep medications in checked luggage. Put them in your carry-on bag and keep them with you at all times. Also carry along copies of prescriptions with you.

Make sure you and your loved one both drink plenty of fluids (eight ounces per hour), and get up and stretch and (if at all possible) take a walk down the aisle of the cabin periodically.

Many medications are affected by climate and environmental changes, sun exposure, heat, and cold. Ask the doctor about these, and also inquire about the possible side effects of drugs taken right before plane flights. Amnesia-like states and motion sickness are common side effects for some medications. It may be wise to withhold certain drugs until after you've arrived at your destination. (Surprisingly, older adults are less susceptible to jet lag than the rest of us.)

Hotels offer sitter services. Make use of them in the day and the evening. Some older adults are slow to rise in the morning. A companion for a few hours in the morning will ensure that Dad will have energy left for the special dinner you've planned.

If it's difficult for Grandma to climb into your SUV, keep a small collapsible stool in your car that they can use to get in and out of the car.

Encourage your loved one to take bottled water on all outings, especially if they'll need to take medication.

Your parents needn't interrupt exercise routines just because they are traveling. Especially because traveling can be exhausting, it's important to stay in shape by maintaining a regular routine, or at least a modified version of it. Exercise will also reduce the chance of injury. Make use of hotel and local gyms. Bring lightweight exercise gadgets with you and encourage stretching. Of course, there's always walking.

Buy a prepaid phone card for Mom, and make sure they know how to use it, in case they need to use a pay phone in an emergency.