Help us help my granny~!
October 30, 2010 6:12 PM   Subscribe

How can we get my grandma from overseas to the US as painlessly as possible without spending $$$$$ amount of money?

My grandma lives nearly by herself overseas. She's having a LOT of joint pain and needs knee surgery. She is also deteriorating mentally and needs to be around more people to interact with, so she's not just sitting in front of the TV and forgetting to eat.

The country she lives in doesn't have any kind of home assistance for the elderly, so we really just want to bring her to the US and have her stay with us. She'd have someone to cook and do laundry for her, the weather is much better here so she can go for walks, she can play with my younger siblings and there's health care that is close by and available to her. In general, it would just be better for her.

However, as I mentioned, movement is really painful for her. Even going down 3 or 4 stairs is very difficult. So, we don't know how she will deal with a 20+ hour overseas trip.

The problem is that we aren't exactly rich, so although first or business class would be roomier and more comfortable (and probably quieter), it's not something we can afford.

I'd like to know what affordable options are available for people in her situation, i.e elderly people with disabilities. We'll probably get her a wheelchair, so she doesn't have to walk in the airport, but we're worried about the long transatlantic flight itself. Economy class is so cramped, and the aisles aren't easy to walk through (we want her to be able to get up + stretch once in a while).

Once we figure out how to do this, my dad will fly over and bring her back.

Thanks for the help everyone!
posted by joyeuxamelie to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Where is she coming from? Europe? Africa? Specific country?
posted by amtho at 6:22 PM on October 30, 2010

Response by poster: She'll be flying out from the Middle East.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 6:25 PM on October 30, 2010

Get her on an Emirates plane.
posted by jchaw at 6:42 PM on October 30, 2010

If you notify the airline that you need wheelchair assistance for an unaccompanied handicapped adult, they will wheel her through the lines (actually more like bypass them,) and get her on and off the plane in a special narrow wheelchair. They will take her to a dedicated lounge area between connecting flights. Most airlines provide surprisingly good service in this regard, especially if you track her by phone and speak to the assistants in advance at each stage of the trip.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:18 PM on October 30, 2010

My grandma is suffering from joint problems in her knees and recently visited Australia from Canada. She went premium economy which is basically economy class with more leg room (think exit rows, I guess), and swore by it. It was more expensive than economy class, of course, but much cheaper than business class and probably the only way she can travel on airplanes these days.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 7:23 PM on October 30, 2010

What if she and your father traveled by cruise ship for all (or a substantial portion) of the journey? There's lots of inexpensive last minute alternatives and they might enjoy the time to reconnect.
posted by carmicha at 8:08 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there any way that a relative making the trip to the US can accompany her? Or can any of the family in the US go and fetch her? I know that it adds more costs, but let me share an anecdote.

Once, I sat beside a woman on a flight from Hong Kong to Canada. She was unaccompanied. She had diabetes, and was about 85 years old. She could walk around a bit, (so in that way was not like your grandmother.) She did not speak English. She spoke a particular Chinese dialect called Toisan, which I do not fully understand. None of the flight attendants spoke this dialect, nor did anyone in any nearby seats. She was tagged with a special assistance sticker which was supposed to tell the flight attendants to keep an extra eye on her. Needless to say, they did not.

At one point, she was very upset. I didn't know why. No one around us could determine why until it finally came out. (She could understand my Cantonese so could nod to my questions.) She needed her medication but didn't realize that the seat-belt sign had gone off. Also, she didn't know where her bag was stored, since a flight attendant did it for her. When we finally pressed the flight attendant, she scoffed, "She *saw* me put it up there. I can't help it if she can't remember."

The older woman was pretty sharp, and she told me she kept her watch on Hong Kong time to keep her medications etc. on track. However, after a meal, she fell asleep. When she woke up she was a bit disoriented. She must have assumed it was morning again, or she was confused because she tried to give herself an insulin injection. Luckily, a 6 year kid across the aisle noticed and remembered the woman injecting herself in the airport lounge NOT THREE HOURS PREVIOUS. The kid told her mom, and the mom quickly stopped the woman. (Note the kid and her family spoke Mandarin and could also not communicate very well with the woman.)

Later, the poor woman's entertainment system went down. The kid, bless her soul, traded seats with her so that the woman could at least watch something (subtitled) while the kid did this little puzzle thing. The flight attendant made the woman move back because since she had a special assistance sticker, they needed to know where she was at all-times!

Her special meals were not all available. One was, so clearly it was ordered but where was the other? At this point, since she made the mistake with the insulin, the woman didn't want to chance eating a non-diabetic meal. So, she just had some bread. (That means one meal and bun for a 16 hour flight. FOR A DIABETIC.) The flight attendants again, were nonchalant.

Once she went to the bathroom, and was inside for a very long time. A man told a flight attendant, who knocked and asked her what was wrong. Since the woman could only answer in Toisanese, the flight attendant assumed that nothing was wrong and went away. Finally someone who knew what seat she was in came and got the man from the family with the 6 year old. He determined that the woman was having trouble with her clothing (thank goodness it wasn't anything serious) and so he went to get his wife to help her. However, the woman wouldn't open the door since I think she was embarrassed at all the fuss. They would have to open the door from the outside. It was explained to the flight attendant that perhaps it was a modesty issue, since she couldn't fix her own clothes. Despite that, the flight attendant flung open the door with a ton of people standing around! The poor woman must have been mortified! Further still, the flight attendant, once the door was open, left it that way, pushed her way past the crowd without helping the woman!

I could go on, and indeed, in my letter to the airline I did. The final straw was that at our destination, there was no wheelchair waiting for her. She was told to wait for one, but it didn't come, or she wasn't sure where to wait. Her special assistance sticker didn't catch enough of the flight crew's attention. The family had found her hobbling towards baggage and flagged down a golf cart. I saw that woman be reunited with her family, and let me tell you, she was so relieved she practically melted in their arms. I only wish one of her family members had been on the trip with her. Imagine if her seatmates were not looking out for her?

P.S. This is not a completely fair view of the flight attendants. One brought extra blankets and also a first-class meal to the woman, but she was too afraid to eat it. Mostly they were dispassionate though.

P.P.S. The stupid airline upon receipt of my complaint letter tried to give me $200 off another flight for my "inconvenience." For my inconvenience?! What about the inconvenience of the woman!!! (In my letter, I gave them her name, seat number, address, which I knew from filling out her customs info!!) I was writing about the airline's shoddy 'special assistance' program and how this woman was entrusted with their care, and they could only think about whether I was inconvenienced. o_O. I am not at all suggesting that they nurse the woman, but surely their service could have involved a few extra check-ins or at the very least, not complete disinterest! I told the airline to shove their $200, and told them why. I don't know if they offered anything to the woman or her family. I sure hope so.

Anyway, if you can get anyone to accompany her and be her advocate, I would highly recommend it.
posted by typewriter at 8:13 PM on October 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry, I can't read apparently.
posted by typewriter at 8:16 PM on October 30, 2010

Toss up whether it is worth doing the trip as a series of shorter hops, rather than one long stint. You may decide that it is better to just put up with the 20+ hours than have the fuss of getting her in and out of multiple airports. But aside from it taking longer with the stopovers, I feel much better about flying in economy when I do it in hops and can wash/lie down in between flights/overnight. Look for either airport-based hotels or those that will do an airport shuttle/pick-up to make it easier.

If you don't want to do multiple hops with a proper stopover, buy the airfare with the shortest travel time, even if it is more money. Having long stopovers in airports (without hotel/shower) is horrible and exhausting at the best of times.

As others have said above, the airline should provide assistance for her to get to/from and on/off the plane if you discuss in advance.

I would say that personally I dislike Emirates and think they are overrated. But not sure what your options are - and you might prefer an airline where you are going to get plenty of flight attendants who speak your granny's language (if that is not English) for her comfort.
posted by AnnaRat at 8:41 PM on October 30, 2010

Response by poster: thank you for all of the tips so far, everyone~! ♥

and just to clarify, as I mentioned in my post above, my dad will be accompanying her. We just want to try to ensure that we can assure her comfort during the trip, even with our limited means.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 8:56 PM on October 30, 2010

What about premium economy?
posted by mdonley at 9:15 PM on October 30, 2010

If any of you have travel miles from a frequent flier program (perhaps from visiting her before?) you can use those to upgrade her to business class for the cost of an economy ticket. I.e. if you have enough miles to swap for an economy ticket, you can use them for a business upgrade instead for the same distance. I did that once, and it was so much roomier. In most frequent flier programs you can donate miles to a family member. If you don't have enough for your dad as well, he could travel economy and just check in on your grandma every hour or so. (And if the airline has a free seat in business, they might even upgrade him for free when they see what's going on.)
posted by lollusc at 9:45 PM on October 30, 2010

I know PIA has an EconomyPlus Class, which is a little more expensive than regular economy, but gives you more room. My Dad and I took it when I was accompanying him to the US for open-heart surgery. The difference in comfort was considerable. Check if any of the airlines flying out of your Middle Eastern location offer a similar class of service.

If your dad will be accompanying, have him speak to the airline staff. Generally, I have found that if you speak to them beforehand, airline staff members go out of their way to be helpful, especially on long-haul flights. This has been more true of my experience with Asian airlines than with European and North American ones. Of airlines in the Middle East, quality of service from best to worst, again, in my experience, has been Etihad, Emirates, Royal Jordanian, Gulf Air. If you can arrange early boarding, the aisle should be a little easier to navigate on a relatively empty plane.

Is she able to walk to the bathroom? That is the thing that I anticipate being the most difficult to manage.
posted by bardophile at 11:28 PM on October 30, 2010

Oh and given that mobility is a problem, I would recommend a non-stop flight rather than several short hops.
posted by bardophile at 11:29 PM on October 30, 2010

From travelling with a HIGHLY impaired/disabled person before, here are my tips:

1. We had to travel with a doctor, as the person needed to be sedated, had a catheter bag strapped to his thigh, and needed constant care. The level of his illness meant that the airline stipulated that he had to travel with a doctor and a family member. You likely will not require this!

2. If your mom has trouble walking, etc, the airline can arrange for an inflight wheelchair - this is a tiny narrow wheelchair that can fit down the narrow aisle. You need to ask for this beforehand - the airline knew we were coming a week before. You can get her wheeled to the back of the plane then let her get up and stretch. Very easy, and no worries about turbulence knocking her off her feet/damaging her knee further if navigating the aisles.

3. Additionally, if required, the economy class bathrooms can be converted into a large disabled toilet - the adjoining wall in between 2 narrow cubicles gets taken down. This was an amazing piece of knowledge for me!

4. Call your airline. Explain the situation. We travelled Singapore Airlines and they are incredible, have always been, but in this case particularly, were amazing.

5. If your mum is deteriorating mentally a lot, consider a small sleeping pill dose to allow her to enjoy the trip a bit more - sleeping for a good 8 hours of the trip would be incredible, and would keep her body stronger as a 20 hour flight is debilitating.

6. We had an ambulance meet us on the tarmac. You probably don't need this, but it can be arranged. In your case, they'll likely wait till the plane has cleared, then wheel her off.

Hope this helps!
posted by shazzam! at 3:44 AM on October 31, 2010

Have you spoken to her about her current health and mobility and about this trip? Has she ever been on a longhaul flight and does she appreciate the practicalities? She may have concerns you've not even thought about and likewise she may be able to put your mind at rest about some of the things you worry about now. It may also be helpful to consider having a female family member have that conversation as she may need help with things she'd be reluctant to discuss with a man and even have a woman travel with her if that is the case.

If there is any way (airmiles/finding money from somewhere) to upgrade her to premier economy or business class that would probably be the easiest thing to do to make this a positive experience - the sheer level of stress and exhaustion caused by being cramped and too close to too many strangers never seizes to amaze me. I had not appreciated just how true that is until I found myself in business class on a 9 hr flight that turned into 13 hrs due to various delays either end - normally I would have been extremely annoyed at these delays but I never even batted an eye lid because I was perfectly comfortable.

Given her mobility, the length of the journey, the fact that she's probably not used to travelling and that the journey symbolises giving up life as she knows it there are going to be major stresses even before she's stuck in economy for 20 hrs. That is not to say you can't make it work in economy - it'll just be more difficult and require a lot more co-operation from the airline. But do talk to her about this!!!
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:20 AM on October 31, 2010

Since you're worried about funding for this, maybe it would help to look into discount for traveling as a caretaker for someone who is handicapped. I've found mentions of those in looking at domestic flights; I have no idea how widespread it is. But perhaps it'd help.

Speaking as someone who mostly just doesn't travel due to pain issues, if there's any way to manage this via cruise (as suggested above), that will probably benefit her immensely. Having a bed *right there* the *whole time* makes it so, so much easier to get from point A to point B. Having meals arranged for you, having the option of just ordering (usually included) room service rather than even having to get up and go to eat, having everything taken care of for you, just makes travel about a million times easier when you have pain and mobility issues. An intercontinental cruise wouldn't be cheap, but maybe you could work with one of the cruise lines or something.

Also: for travel to and from ships, perhaps trains with sleeper cars. Obviously not intercontinental, but ships don't go on the ground either.

I do find that, when I have to travel in a way that requires me to walk a certain amount, wait around, sit still and cramped for hours (etc etc), if I can sleep a little it helps me deal with the pain. I know that dramamine knocks me out, so I often just take some. But the sleeping meds suggestion above sounds like a really good one too.
posted by galadriel at 7:31 AM on October 31, 2010

I assume, since you didn't mention it, that either Granny is a U.S. citizen or you've worked through the issues involved in sponsoring a family member for immigration.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:48 AM on October 31, 2010

Why not buy two economy seats for your grandma so she has room to stretch? It might be cheaper than buying a first class for both her and your father? Just make sure that seats you bought are next to each other, get there early and be prepared to fight for her seat if they try to bump someone.
posted by lovelygirl at 3:34 PM on October 31, 2010

Often premium economy seats are in the bulkhead row, which gives extra legroom but means that the tray tables are stored in the armrests, since they can't fold down from in front. That means that the seats are narrower than normal seats, and that the armrests are immovable; if you buy three seats, the arm rests can't be folded up to create two extra width seats in effect. I had one grandmother for whom that would have been an issue; seat width would have been important to her comfort (it is for me).

Seat Guru
has detailed maps for every airline by plane; the plane is important. Air Canada has one plane (the E190) that has an extra 2 inches of pitch (legroom) and 1 inch of width; getting on this bird is practically my only criteria for short haul flights.

For my own interest, I checked Kayak for cruise information, and the cheapest deal seems to be a Nov 10 sailing of the Queen Mary 2(!) from London to Brooklyn that runs $800+ per person, which is somewhat less ridiculous than I thought. DXB-LON plus cruise is not entirely more than DXB-NYC. Certainly that would be a memorable trip, if your dad can and wants to spend the week with his mother in a 152 sq foot room, and they're into the luxury cruise sort of thing.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:32 PM on November 2, 2010

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