When Mom and I travel together and she needs to "powder her nose," it's never been a problem for me to accompany her to the restroom. It's always good to know that I can be nearby if she needs "a square" (as Elaine from Seinfeld so aptly demonstrates!) or any other assistance.
Travel companions aren't always the same sex, though, and in those cases bathroom visits can be a bit more complicated. I asked my octogenarian mom how she would feel if she had to get bathroom help from my brother. She replied that even though she loves Eric dearly, she would rather wet her pants than have him (or any man, for that matter) assist with such personal tasks. I'm certain she's not the only one who feels that way about this situation.
So what can you do if you're traveling with an aging parent who's of the opposite sex and needs assistance in the bathroom? Bringing along a professional caregiver of the same sex (for example, a female nurse to help an aging female parent who's traveling with her son) can help, but that option isn't available to everyone. Here a few strategies that can help you and your opposite-sex parent navigate these challenges when you travel together.
First and foremost, remember that the situation is awkward for everyone involved
No parents relish the idea of asking their children for assistance in the restroom--and no children are keen on the idea of having to provide such help. Not only are bathroom tasks incredibly intimate, but the role reversal (remember, your parents helped you with your toilet needs long ago) can put additional strain on your changing relationship with each other.
If your parent needs help and you're the only one who can offer it, treat the situation as a must-do task for both of you. Regardless of age or ability, we all need to use the bathroom from time to time (as the bestselling children's book Everyone Poops makes clear!), so acknowledging that reality can help decrease any discomfort or embarrassment about the topic.
Use empathy and humor to lighten the mood
The first time I had to help my mom in the bathroom was when she came down with Montezuma's Revenge during a trip together. Thanks to the illness doing a number on her, she was already feeling miserable--and needing my help in the bathroom did not improve the situation. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I reminded her that she'd had to give me similar assistance when I was little and added, "But I'm sure my poo smelled like sweet cherries in the springtime!" My strategy worked: we both cracked up, and our laughter chased away the awkwardness! On the rare occasion that my mom needs assistance in the restroom, it's still uncomfortable for her. But being able to laugh about the situation helps us both get through it.
These public facilities (often also called unisex restrooms or handicapped restrooms) are single-user large bathrooms with features that make it easier for family members to assist others (both young and old) in the restroom and make them accessible to wheelchair users. They're separate from male- and female-specific restrooms, which makes them more private, and their amenities can include changing tables, grab bars, lower sinks and towel bars, and sometimes two toilets (one each in adult and child sizes). Family restrooms are a relatively new thing and not always easy to find, but they're gradually becoming more commonplace (and smartphone apps such as Sit or Squat--available for both iOS and Android--can make it easier to find handicapped-accessible restrooms when you're on the go and gotta go).
...and when they're not, use the regular restrooms
If you're unable to use a family restroom, it is possible for you to accompany your opposite-sex parent into a regular public restroom. Many women take their older fathers, husbands, or (in the case of caregivers) male clients into the handicapped stall in the women's restroom, where, because all of the toilet facilities are already in individual stalls, privacy is less of a concern; men can similarly accompany their older mothers, wives, or female clients into the women's restroom. If you're in that situation, I would advise you to announce "male caretaker coming in!" (or "male visitor coming in!") before entering.
Because the facilities in men's restrooms are more exposed, some extra care is needed when accompanying an opposite-sex parent there. A female friend of mine cared for her father in his later years, and when she accompanied him into the men's restroom (which he preferred to use because he was more comfortable there), she would announce "female caretaker coming in!" then waited a moment before entering to give anyone using the urinals time to finish up.
Communicate with your parents about their needs
Discuss your parents' bathroom needs with them (and their caretaker, if they already have one) before your trip so you can be prepared to provide the sort of assistance they need. For example, if you know ahead of time that your dad needs help to pull himself up from the toilet seat, you can make sure to book hotel rooms with grab bars or (if he can't use grab bars on his own or needs your hands-on help to stand) bathrooms that are large enough to accommodate both of you.
It is possible that talking with your parents about their bathroom needs could make them so uncomfortable that they resolve to minimize their liquid intake during your trip in order to avoid having to use the bathroom. Do your best to put them at ease, because dehydration can be especially risky to older adults. Remind your parents that the old adage "When you gotta go, you gotta go!" applies to everyone, regardless of age, and make sure your travel schedule includes plenty of time for them to use the restroom (at their own pace) without being rushed.