“Traveling with 85-Year-Old Parents” by Danne Pientka

Silver Alerts

Search for lost

elderly loved ones.

Elderly loved ones

            search for lost memories.

I lost my parents twice on the direct flight from Cincinnati to Austin, Texas. Each were 85 years old and no longer spry, yet still they eluded me.  

For years, I visited my parents for roughly ten days in early June. I flew in from Phoenix on a Thursday or Friday, based on flight price and schedule, to Cincinnati. Mom and I spent the following weekdays playing in the Flying Pig Cincinnati Bridge Regional. On the weekends, Dad and I drove to his Kentucky tobacco farm and spent a father-daughter overnight, my helping him with chores, running the ATV across the hills, and hanging out. We loved our special shared time at the farm together.

This year we planned to cut my annual visit short to attend a June family wedding with Dad’s relatives in San Antonio, then to spend time with Mom’s family members in Austin before returning to Cincinnati. My brother James, who lived in Corpus Christi with his family, and I learned from recent parent dramas that our folks should never travel without a chaperone. Since I already planned to be in Cincinnati, I would escort them to the wedding and back.

I hired a driving service to pick us up at 4:30 a.m. for our 7:00 Thursday departure.

4:00 a.m. arrived. Mom sent me to their bedroom to get Dad up as she was downstairs fixing coffee. I announced, “Morning Dad. Time to wake up.” I turned his nightstand lamp on and gently nudged his shoulder.

He groaned, “I’m tired. Go away!” Dad’s dementia left him with practically no short-term memory and limited long-term memory. His memory loss made him angry … made him scared. Sometimes, he flew into a rage, unfortunately a common occurrence with dementia. He rarely showed that side with me, but I recognized its wave cresting. Unintended challenges to his memory increased his frustration.

I laughed at his grumpiness to keep the sentiment light. “Come on, old man.” I reminded him, “We’re flying to Austin today. You can sleep on the plane. The driver arrives in 30 minutes. You need to get up.”

He grumbled and mumbled but got up and dressed. His shower would wait until San Antonio.

The chauffeur drove us to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International airport. Once there we first juggled getting the reserved airport’s wheelchair and settling Mom in it.

Mom fell down the house stairs two years ago and broke her neck. For the rest of her life, resigned, she served a life sentence to wearing a neck brace 24/7. Her arthritis and osteo left her body fragile and her balance shaky. She used a cane when walking outside the house. Her thorny stubbornness unfortunately grew sharper as she aged. She refused to acknowledge limitations, fighting to retain her independence. Mom finally agreed to using an airport wheelchair to arrive at the gates in a reasonable timeframe, “But under protest,” she complained.

The curbside redcap checked our two suitcases. He asked for IDs for security purposes. Dad cocked his head at him, cupped his hand around his ear and yelled, “What?” The outside noises from landing and departing planes, vehicular traffic, and people shouting deafened even me to the redcap’s questions.

Dad spent years training recruits to fire Army tanks. The soldiers wore no hearing protection in those days. Dad’s VA doctor declared Dad’s subsequent deafness qualified him for VA disability. Despite the latest high-tech VA hearing aids he sported, we noticed minimal improvement in his hearing.

I helped the redcap. I showed Dad my wallet and pulled out my driver’s license. Dad acknowledged understanding and pulled his driver’s license from his wallet. Mom gave the redcap her passport.  The redcap printed the boarding passes. Dad struggled, unsuccessfully, to manage juggling his wallet and driver’s license with his jacket. He kept dropping his license. If the license had been eggs, the carton’s dozen broke. Sighing, I leaned down and picked up his license. Handing it to Mom, I then accepted the boarding passes as I tipped the redcap. In the past, Dad never accepted me tipping anyone before him. Distracted, he didn’t notice.

Finally, all checked in, I dragged the two roller-bags while Dad pushed Mom in the wheelchair.

As we approached the security check-in, I saw the nearby Starbucks booth.

I stopped my folks.

“Please stay here by the railing,” I requested. “Sandy asked for the Kentucky theme mug.” My niece collected the Starbucks 50 state commemoration mugs. She asked that, if possible, I get her Ohio and Kentucky. The Ohio mug sat in my roller-bag. I found the Kentucky mug, stood in line, then glanced back at the railing, expecting to see my parents waiting for me. No parents. I dropped the mug onto its shelf and ran out of the shop, looking all around. No parents.

I spotted the TSA security checkpoint down the hallway in front of me, so I raced to its lines. I scanned each passenger-jammed line. They created a long maze, like a winding undulating worm, through the entire large room. No parents.

Frantic, I asked the three TSA agents standing near the entrance, “Have you seen two 85-year-old people, one a woman in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace and an old man pushing her?”

“Oh yes, we took them to the front of the line,” one cheerfully replied.

I sighed, frustrated. “Please give these to them,” handing her two papers. “These are their boarding passes. I’m their daughter. Tell them I’ll meet them at the gate.” She agreed, so I returned to Starbucks to purchase that damn coffee mug. Personally, I found the coffee mugs’ bland brown ink artwork against the egg-white background unappealing.

I stood in the security line for an hour, annoyed. If the folks waited for me, I jumped the line with them. I shuffled mindlessly up one lane and down another, wearing the same glazed look as the faces around me. I felt justified overriding Mom’s objections to the early pickup time; I insisted on arriving two hours prior to our departure time. At least I could assume they arrived at the game in a timely manner.

As I handed my ID and boarding pass to the TSA agent, she recognized me, to me an encouraging sign of their training. In my frustration and oblivious unawareness, I hadn’t noted her face when I gave her the boarding papers. She assured me my parents got through fine and would meet me at the gate. I thanked her, startled and grateful at the coincidence of pairing up with the same agent.

I took the underground train to Terminal B, rode up the escalator while maneuvering the two roller-bags on the steps, then walked to the gate. No parents. A message board informed me of a gate change. I walked two more gates down the terminal and looked around. No parents. Boarding would start in forty minutes, so I bought an egg sandwich and a hot vanilla latte from a nearby Starbuck’s kiosk. It also sold the Kentucky mug, dang. I figured the folks stopped somewhere to eat a bite. I sat in a bench seat that faced the terminal’s length.

I bit into the heated ham, egg, and cheese croissant. The warm juices exploded in my dry mouth. I experienced mild ecstasy as I tasted the thin sliced ham and Gruyere cheese merging together. Delicious. And yet, where were my parents? I slowly munched as I scanned up then down then up the terminal. No parents. I swallowed my bite. The food caught in my throat. I sipped the hot coffee, no relief. My throat felt stuck. I moved my head up and down, side by side, stretching my throat. The heat from more coffee sips helped a little. The blockage finally passed. My throat felt ravaged. In my hands, the sandwich and coffee sat motionless, cooling and congealing as I continued my visual search. I held no interest in suffering another blockage. Where were my folks?  

Ten minutes went by. I grew more nervous. I called first Mom’s cell, then Dad’s. No answer. They never turned their phones on, typical and expected. Done trying to eat my sandwich and too wired to drink the remaining cooled coffee, I dumped the remains in the trash and dragged the roller-bags back to the original gate. I saw the gate loading for Memphis. An empty wheelchair sat near the entry.  

I approached the check-in and explained my predicament. I again described Mom and Dad, two 85-year-old seniors, neck brace, wheelchair and asked if they boarded the plane by accident.

“No hon, your folks aren’t on this plane.” Disappointed at first, my confidence to chaperone the trip eroded further as I then realized I still needed to find them.

Back at the departure gate, I asked the boarding attendant, “My 85-year-old parents are missing. Would you please announce on the intercom for Lynn Harrison to return to gate B7? My dad is deaf and won’t hear it.” She complied, and I heard the request clearly through the speakers. Still no parents.

Near hysteria, I called my brother at work in Corpus Christi. “James, I’ve lost our folks.” I went through the saga, “If they don’t appear, I have to stay. Something might have actually happened to them.”

He agreed, asked me to keep him up to date, and we hung up.

The boarding attendant announced on the intercom, “Those persons needing assistance or are with small children may pre-board.” I started pacing the terminal, staring up and down its length for any sign of my parents.

Then, at last, I saw my dad briskly walking towards me, no mom in sight. In a panic, I dropped the drag bags and raced down the terminal yelling, “Where’s Mom?” I caught up to him, and we rapidly walked together back to the gate.

He puffed as he walked, “She’s fine. She sent me on ahead to let you know we’re coming.”

Boarding progressed. I finally saw Mom approaching, riding in an electric golf cart. She smiled and back-waved serenely like a queen without a worry on her mind as the airport assistant deposited her at the gate.

“Let us tell you what happened,” she started.

“No time,” I interrupted her. “We have to board NOW. Tell me once we’re on the plane.”

We settled in our assigned seats, me across the aisle from them. I texted James to let him know we were on our way. I needed a Bloody Mary, a very stiff Bloody Mary. And it was only 7:00 a.m.

After the plane took off and gained elevation, Dad started. “We were at the wrong gate at the opposite end of the terminal.”

“Why didn’t you wait for me at the coffee shop like I asked?” I demanded.

Mom explained, “We saw a ton of passengers heading our way. We didn’t want to wait in the security line behind them, so we decided to get to security first. We expected you to join us. Instead, those nice officers took us directly to the front.

I mentally groaned.

“After we arrived at the gate, your father left me to go back to the security check-in. He convinced himself that he left ‘something’ behind.’” That was another feature of Dad’s dementia. He occasionally suffered from delusional conversations and hallucinations.

“He hadn’t left anything, of course,” Mom stated. “That’s about when I realized we went to the wrong gate. All the seats around me were empty. By the time Earl returned, I needed transport to make our flight.”

Dad piped up, “Yeah, we kept wondering where you were.”

Sarcastically, I questioned, “Ever think about turning your phone on?”

They gave each other a side glance and with the familiarity of having lived sixty-four years as husband and wife, shrugged their shoulders slightly. At least they looked a little sheepish.

“You’re not leaving my sight until we check in at the San Antonio hotel,” I declared.

The flight to Austin was uneventful …

and then we landed.

“Okay Mom, they want us to deplane last because of the wheelchair.”

“I don’t want the wheelchair. I’ve been sitting on this flight for 3.5 hours. I need to walk, I can use my cane, and Austin is a small airport.”

We argued, and she stubbornly refused the wheelchair. “At least let me push the chair so if you change your mind, we have it,” I compromised.

“No! Your father drives the wheelchair worse than his car. I am exhausted and embarrassed apologizing to everyone he rams me into.” Dad still drove his car but shouldn’t, maneuvering his large Cadillac like a mini-tank down the road. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) recently sent him a notice to schedule a driving test appointment. His VA doctor reported him to the BMV for testing. Dad fumed. I attempted to report him years prior; however, Ohio does not allow anonymous reports.

“I walk fine.” She deliberately kicked each leg highish in geriatric Rockettes style as she moved forward in the aisle, her right hand grasping her cane, her left hand grabbing each headrest. “See, I can manage.”

Once out of the plane, she attempted to wrestle one of the roller-bags from me. I denied her. My stubbornness came genetically from them both. Rejected, she wrapped her left arm around Dad’s. They strolled together as though newly enamored lovers, arm-in-arm, down the terminal towards the baggage area, slowly due to her balance issues, her cane steadying her path. The sight felt touchingly romantic for me. I trailed behind them like their Australian Shepherd herding its mutton.

The arrival/departure gates were sited on the airport’s top floor, the baggage area located on the bottom floor. A long escalator dizzyingly extended down what looked like three or four stories. It divided the baggage area in half.

“I can’t take the escalator,” stated Mom. “Because of the neck brace I can’t look down.”

“That’s fine; I see the elevators to the right.” Mom and I walked towards the elevators. Dad headed for the escalator.

“Come on, Dad. The elevators are this way,” I pointed.

“No. I want to take the escalator.”

“But Dad, we need to stay together. Join us in the elevator, please,” I cajoled him.

“No!” he exclaimed loudly, getting mad. “I want to ride the escalator,” sounding like a petulant child.

When he got irrationally angry, another symptom of his growing dementia, we learned to let him be. This kind and gentle man sometimes exploded with nearly unmanageable fury. Most times we never knew what set him off. He sometimes woke up in the morning and stormed down the stairs to verbally cast his fits of rage at Mom. He apparently dreamed some imagined heinous act she’d performed. She learned to stay quiet and let him vent. She feared his verbal abuse might turn physical if she said a word of protest. Yet still, she refused my efforts to move them to a senior care center that held trained personnel who could help.  

“Okay.” I replied. “See you at the bottom.”

I watched to make sure he got on the escalator. We then entered the elevator cabin that slowly took us to the bottom floor. We got out and looked around. No Dad. Couldn’t he enjoy the ride down and wait for us? Knowing the impossibility of his turning around in mid-descent, I quickly scanned the escalator going up. No sign of him riding up. Where was he? I groaned.

I spotted our bags circling on the last carousel to the left, the sole bags remaining. Everyone else recovered their bags during our stroll. I retrieved the two suitcases and placed one roller-bag on top of each, wrestling again with Mom to leave them alone.

“I can handle this. You focus on your balance. Now, let’s find Dad.”

We started back towards the escalator and spied Dad wandering around on the other side of the baggage area, looking lost.

“MARTIN!!” shrieked Mom. Her throat served as a natural megaphone, a freak of nature. She could call James and me to dinner when we were kids playing with friends two blocks away. Even with his extreme deafness, Dad heard her, attuned to her voice.

He hurried over. “I can’t find our bags; I’ve looked and looked.”

“You mean the bags that I’m dragging right now?” Okay, yes, I confess I sounded a bit snarky. They were wearing me out.

He took control of one set of bags and let Mom take the small roller-bag. She smiled in triumph at me then stuck her tongue out.

I ignored her.                                            

“Let’s now find the rental car agency. I pre-paid for a mid-sized Scion,” I explained as I looked for rental car signage. “I need to buy a new car soon. This is the perfect time to test drive one of their models.” I found the rental signs. The direction arrows pointed up.

“Oh no,” I audibly moaned. “The rental car agencies are on the top level. Dad, please ride the elevator with us,” I begged him. “I can’t deal with the bags myself.” Well, now I was pleading and appealing to his chivalry. I went low, but I did not care. It worked, and he joined us.

Once back at the top level, I spotted another arrow to the rental car section. It directed us outside. We stepped into the Texas June humidity. A hot and seemingly solid wall of wetness hit us. Through heat waves rising from the pavement, I spied the rental car building. It sat at the opposite end of a long bridge that spanned the lower parking lots. The building shimmered like a mirage, teasingly near but an issued challenge to approach in that bright sun and high temperature and heavy humidity.

I quickly glanced around for available wheelchairs, none in sight. I pointed to the building. “Mom, can you walk that far?” Mentally I berated myself for not pushing the wheelchair despite her objections.

She waved me forward. “You go ahead. Your father and I will follow.” She wrapped her arm again around Dad’s.

I pulled the suitcase with its roller-bag adornment through the blazing heat and kept my eye on the target. About halfway across the bridge, I turned and saw my parents sitting on a bench in the shade. They managed to step about twenty small paces onto the bridge.  They waved their hands, shooing me to continue.

I finally entered blessed cooled refrigerated air and waited, drenched, in line at the counters. Just as an attendant called me over, Dad appeared and asked, “What’s taking so long?”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Sitting on that bench still.”

“Okay, tell you what, Dad. Go back to her and once I get the car, I’ll bring it around and pick you up at the bench. Shouldn’t be long now.”

He agreed and left.

The attendant took me through the paperwork and gave me directions on how to return. “Follow the exit signs out of the airport, then return and go to the departure gates.” While I walked to my designated car, I deliberated the pros and cons of the return.

The cons won out, barely; too many people knew the parents were with me. Placing the suitcase in the trunk and the roller-bag on the backseat behind the driver’s seat, I left the airport and returned. I pulled the car into the lane designated solely for shuttle buses, the closest lane to the bridge and my parents. As I turned the engine off, a shuttle bus coming up behind me honked its horn, rather rudely I thought. I sighed, got out of the car, and waited for the bus door to align to my position. The driver opened his door. In what I determined to accept as helpful, he angrily shouted, “You risk a $500 fine.”

I was done. I shouted back, “It’s the closest spot to my 85-year-old parents.” I gestured towards them. “I have to get them.”

He muttered, closed his door, and moved the shuttle on. I muttered, “New mantra: 85-year-old parents. Used to be Live-Love-Laugh. That’s been shot today.”

I ran to my parents and grabbed their bags yelling, “Hurry as fast as you can or it’s a $500 fine.” I read news reports earlier that year that the fines supplemented Austin airport’s depleted budget. Little chance of talking my way out of a ticket.

Returning to the car quickly, I opened the trunk, placed the second suitcase on top of the first suitcase and attempted to close the trunk door. No room, not even close, the tiny trunk barely held space for the first suitcase.

“Lousy car,” I grumbled. “Decision made, no Scion.”

I jammed the roller-bag on top of the suitcase. Slamming the trunk closed with a struggle that scrunched the soft-top bags, I realized I might have cracked the coffee mugs. At that point, too bad. I opened the back door behind the driver’s seat and propped the second suitcase on top of the second roller-bag. I moved the driver’s seat up some inches for the suitcase to fit. A ticking mental clock prevented me from the seconds required to readjust the bags further. Sweat poured into my eyes and down my neck. I was tall. Sitting behind the driver’s wheel, my knees hit underneath the dashboard. I splayed my legs out. “Not a feminine look,” Mom sniffed at me later with a high degree of Southern disapproval.

Meanwhile, Dad opened the other back door and helped Mom into the back seat. The suitcase intruded on some of her space, so she propped her elbow on it as an armrest. Dad then sat himself in the passenger seat, plenty of legroom for him as he could adjust the seat back further than I. I started the engine and moved out of the lane with a sigh of relief. No ticket.

I blasted the AC on high. “Okay, Dad. I left Texas years ago. I don’t remember which freeway to take from Austin to San Antonio.” I reached into the console and held up a folded paper. “Here’s the map the rental agency gave me.”

“Good, I can read maps; I was in the military.”

“I know you were,” I encouraged him. “So, what’s the freeway number?”

He took the map from me and opened it up joyfully, glad to be of help. He studied the map carefully. “Hummm … easy! Take I-10 all the way from Houston to San Antonio.” So pleased with himself, he folded the map.

I quietly sighed. “Dad, that’s great. However, we are in Austin. I need the Austin to San Antonio route.”

He reopened the map and examined the state of Texas. “I see San Antonio. Where’s Austin?”

That memory loss hit like a physical blow. It hurt. Mom and Dad were born in Houston. They spent their first twenty-one years in Texas and countless family visits afterwards.

“Never mind,” I exhaled. “I’ll map the hotel directions on my phone.”

I pulled over, got out my phone, mapped our destination, and computed the auto-drive. I also readjusted the suitcases to give Mom a little more arm room and me more legroom. As I drove down the freeway, Mom grew nervous at the GPS when it announced directions. “Dennis, why don’t you let me hold the phone. I can tell you where to go.”

Sure, my tech-unsavvy mom would read the map. “No thanks, Mom. Last month you gave Dad directions to Tennessee for Sandy’s college graduation. No four-hour detours for me, thank you. We’re fine.”

We finally arrived at the hotel and checked in. After lunch and my much-earned glass of wine, we unwound.

Five hours later James and his family checked into the hotel. Sandy received her undamaged coffee mugs, and we gathered in the lobby to head for dinner.

I gave James a hug, then stepped back, tapped his shoulder, and whispered, “Tag, you’re it!”

His head dropped, and he nodded, “I know.”

And my parents, after hearing me regale the family in response to the question, “How did your trip go,” chided me.

“We’re 84.”

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