‘See the world just like anybody else’: Disability, chronic disease not keeping older travelers from taking off

This summer, WTOP is taking you on a tour and exploring how adults 50 and older are spending their travels.

Southwest Virginia resident Sharon Moore Myers has traveled extensively using a wheelchair. As a four-time Paralympian, she once traveled around the world competing and winning medals in swimming, javelin, the discus and other sports.

Myers, now 76, continued her travels after retiring from wheelchair sports and in 1998, she became involved with the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, which works with travel agents and the industry on training to meet the travel needs of people with disabilities.

“I want to see the world just like anybody else,” Myers said. So she sought people who were willing to figure out a way, and “made it possible,” she said.

Myers has traveled to Peru several times, visiting the jungle and Machu Picchu and going whitewater rafting in the Urubamba River. She has gone on a safari in South Africa, and has traveled to India, Dubai and to several European countries.

Myers’ organization, SATH, serves as a clearinghouse for information and maintains the group’s history advocating for laws and regulations for accessible travel.

Some 61 million or 27% of adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 1 in 4 adults.

Myers, who is paralyzed from the waist down and has some paralysis in her arms and hands due to polio, which she contracted when she was three years old, said that she does not see herself as having any limitations. She never liked the word ‘disabled,’ “because there’s nothing ‘dis-’ about me,” she said.

“If I were going to be labeled, I would rather be called enabled because of the wheelchairs that we have now and the devices and access,” Myers said. “I don’t see any limitations.”

Her advice to travelers is to seek out tour operators who are trained to help people who have impairments. Her trips to South Africa and Peru, with operators who have the know-how in arranging trips for people with disabilities, have enriched her experience and created fond deposits in her memory bank.

She has not traveled internationally since switching to a power wheelchair, worried that it would be difficult without the guarantee of transportation that could accommodate her device once she reaches her destination.

Myers said the dearth of buses in the U.S. that can accommodate travelers with all kinds of disabilities — including issues with mobility and vision — is a missed opportunity.

“It would be filled all the time,” Myers said. “Sooner or later, everyone or their family or loved one will have a disability. And the world that we make better now for those who are disabled will be the world that you and I live in eventually.”

Jani Nayar, the executive director of SATH, said that a lot of people who are older than 50 may not want to admit they have a disability. “They get very upset if you say that they have a disability,” Nayar said.

But the experiences of travelers with disabilities could provide some insight and lessons for older adults who want to continue traveling as their abilities change with age.

Tips on safety and making travel arrangements

For example, some 12.1% of U.S. adults have serious difficulty walking or climbing the stairs. That’s just slightly below the percentage of adults who have issues with cognition, such as concentrating, remembering or making decisions. Some 6% of U.S. adults are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing, and 4.8% have a vision disability.

Older adult travelers who need accommodations and want to plan their own travel should specify their needs when making arrangements.

“When you make the reservation, never assume that if you tell the person who is on the other end of the phone that I use a wheelchair, she would know what your needs are,” Nayar said, adding that people who use wheelchairs have different needs.

At the airport, make sure that airlines know whether you need help transferring from the wheelchair to your seat, whether you are able to slide over or need to be lifted onto the seat.

The same specificity and detail apply when making hotel reservations. Call the hotel at the location instead of the 800 number some major hotel companies have. The person taking the call may be in a different state than your destination and may not know the details of each room.

“You have to make them understand … ‘I’m looking for a room where I have the facilities for my disability,’” Nayar said.

Tips to stay safe while on vacation

One of the biggest issues for older adults is preventing falls, according to the National Council on Aging, which is headquartered in Virginia.

Older adults are at very high risk for falls. “It’s actually the leading cause of injury and death by injury for those over the age of 65,” said Kathleen Cameron, senior director at the NCOA.

Older travelers can take some precautions to avoid falls while on vacation, including understanding the terrain at their destination, wearing comfortable shoes with rubber soles and making sure they understand what the hotel looks like and how they’re going to get around in that hotel, Cameron said.

Nayar, with SATH, extends that to always making sure how to get yourself out in case of emergencies.

“Be aware of your exits. Be aware of how you can get out of a building,” Nayar said. “Even a small fight, like people start fighting, punching each other, you want to get out of there. And knowing which way to go would help you a lot.”

Safety begins even before you get to where you’re going

Several studies have shown that travel improves the physical and mental health of adults 50 and older, leading to greater life satisfaction.

“Travel is intellectually, physically, mentally stimulating, and exciting,” said Cameron, with the NCOA. “Particularly for people who have traveled throughout their lives, they want to continue to travel as they get older.”

Travel is also a way to reduce social isolation and loneliness, connect with people and foster connections that are “vital to our mental health as we age,” Cameron added.

But it’s important to take some precautions.

Cameron said the NCOA recommends that older adults who are traveling, particularly abroad, talk to their doctor about where they are going and any special precautions they should know about based on their particular needs related to their chronic conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease or arthritis — any disability they might have or any shots they need.

Travelers should also do some research about nearby medical facilities in case of emergency, whether Medicare would cover any treatments they may need while away from home or whether they may need to purchase travel insurance.

Based on chronic conditions, surgery, medications or other treatments they are undergoing, older adults may be at risk for blood clots when they fly.

“Maybe walk up and down the aisles every hour to increase the circulation and prevent potential blood clots from happening in the legs,” Cameron said.

Lastly, Nayar and Cameron advise always carrying medications with you and not putting them in your checked luggage.

This travel advice applies to all travelers; however, older adults tend to be more vulnerable and tend to have chronic conditions that are being treated with medications which could be exacerbated with travel, Cameron said.

“You have no choice in getting old,” Nayar said. “You will get old, but you have a choice to take advantage of all the facilities that are provided for you.”

Travel resources

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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