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8 Tips for Staying Healthy While on the Road With an Aging Parent

06/25/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2016

Getting sick is always the pits, but it's even worse when you're on vacation. In addition to wasting money and precious vacation time, an illness on the road can be even more difficult to manage when you lack ready access to the prescriptions and over-the-counter medications that can help you get better faster. Adding insult to injury, getting sick while traveling can be worse than usual, simply because you're not home: there's a lot to be said about the benefits of being in your own bed when you're unwell.

Unfortunately, travel can often make us more susceptible to illness. In addition to the risk factors present at your destination (depending on your location), conditions during the journey itself can increase your odds of getting sick. (Who among us hasn't felt the first hint of a sore throat--or something even worse--after sitting on a plane for hours surrounded by coughing passengers?) Doing what you can to ensure that you're as healthy as possible before embarking on vacation is a good precaution for you to take--and doubly so for your aging parents. In addition to being healthy before you go, your travel preparations should also include knowing how to keep you and your parents healthy while you're on the road. So before planning your next trip with your parents, take a look at these eight tips for staying healthy during your adventure together:

1. Visit a travel medicine specialist (aka a travel doctor) before your trip. This action is critical before any travel, whether you're visiting a developing country or traveling in the United States or another developed country. Because primary care physicians often lack specific knowledge of the diseases and vaccine requirements of other countries, travel doctors can ensure that both you and your parent are current on all your vaccines and aware of local health issues before you hit the road.

2. Wash your hands often. The International Air Transport Association estimates that more than 8 million people board a flight every day (that's over 3 billion people each year). That adds up to a lot of grubby hands--and who knows where they've been! Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of disease, so do it often.

3. Use hand sanitizer. When flying, always bring hand sanitizer in your carry-on, just in case you're unable to access the restroom to wash your hands during the flight (for example, when rough weather causes a bumpy flight and passengers must stay in their seats). Bring some sanitizing wipes with you as well, so you can wipe down the airplane tray before using it. (Who knows how well the cleaning crew really cleans the interior of airplanes! Don't take any chances: a recent Auburn University study found that tray tables are particularly effective at transmitting germs.)

4. Stay physically active. The benefits of exercise are well proven: it boosts your immune system, releases endorphins, and helps you stay mentally sharp. I love to work out while on the road! (Something about being in a strange location--and away from the usual distractions--helps me keep up with my exercise better.) But what about older adults who have trouble moving? My mom's knees hurt all the time, so much physical activity is beyond her (for example, she uses a wheelchair for distances longer than a short city block). If this situation sounds familiar to you, check out my recommendations for stationary exercises that your parent (and you, too!) can do during your flight and at your destination.

5. Hydrate and limit alcohol consumption. My mom and I both have a hard time with this one, because we do love our cocktails! But we recognize the importance of drinking water and not going crazy with the alcohol when we travel, particularly on long-haul flights where dehydration can increase the risk of deep-vein thrombosis (a blood clot in the leg). So we have a pact: each adult beverage we consume must be followed by a glass of water. No water, no cocktail. My mom hates drinking water (and I rarely think about it), so this "game" has made it easier for us to check each other's consumption of both water and alcohol.

6. Stay on schedule with medications. During the transit phase of your vacation, plenty of things can go wrong and distract you from remembering your parents' pill schedules (or your own). So do your homework before the trip: program alarms, put reminders in a book, mark your calendar, make use of a pill organizer, and do whatever else you must to ensure that everyone remembers to take his or her medicines at the right times.

7. Skip the carbs. Protein helps you resist infection and keeps your immune system healthy. So skip the carbs and instead snack on healthy, protein-laden foods that you bring with you, such as pumpkin seeds, almonds or other nuts, or low-sodium beef or turkey jerky. Arrive at the airport early enough to have time to visit a restaurant for a pre-flight meal loaded with fruits, vegetables, and low-fat proteins. (Then you won't have to rely on an airplane meal--assuming your airline even offers food, of course!)

8. Rest and get plenty of sleep. The health benefits of getting enough sleep are well documented. Whether you're at home or on the road, skimping on sleep for several days in a row can leave you feeling run down and vulnerable to the sniffles--or something even worse. Sleep benefits not just your physical health but your mental health, too. Although many travel warriors recommend forcing yourself to stay awake until the evening the first day you're in a foreign country, you and your parents may want to take short naps upon arrival, to help you adjust to the time change more easily. (This little bit of rest works wonders for my mom and me: we definitely get along better when we're not sniping at each other because we're over-tired!

No matter the destination, travel has the potential to be an amazing experience that broadens your horizons and brings you closer to the people you love. When you're busy booking the flights, reserving hotel rooms, packing your bags, and putting your mail on hold, don't forget to attend to another vital task: taking the steps to ensure that your parents and you are as healthy as possible during your trip.

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Mom and I exploring Phuket, Thailand in 2009. (Mom was 79 at the time.)
(picture courtesy of Valerie M. Grubb)