One of the many things that being older can afford is the time to travel, sometimes travel of long distances and for prolonged times. For example, your author and his wife went cruising on our 41-foot boat for 6,000 miles circumnavigating eastern North America, taking off and on for two years. We have friends who sailed their boat around the world over five years. Most people do a shorter trip (time and distance.) Nevertheless, there are things regarding one’s health to consider before extended travel — defined as more than a few days and miles. Make a portable medical record to take with you (see list at right.) One good resource to use prior to travel is the CDC travel website.
Prevention is the best medicine. Don’t travel if you're not fit enough to do so. If unsure, ask your physician about whether you should embark on that trip of a lifetime or weekend away.
Assuming it is safe to travel, there are some other important things to always remember. First is to take more medicine than you anticipate needing. Be meticulous in counting up the number of pills that you take a day and be sure to have the minimum supply plus three days, in case there are unplanned delays in your travel plans. Also, be sure to carry an electronic copy of all prescriptions on a thumb drive. Ask your doctor to send you a PDF of all prescriptions with a recent date so that if your medicines are lost you can get a refill. Always carry these prescriptions with you whenever traveling. Also, it is good practice to have prescriptions filled at a chain drug store, because they will have your prescriptions on file.
You should always be up to date with vaccinations. However, when traveling, this can be a requirement and is certainly prudent protection. Immunizations include tetanus, flu, rubella, and pneumonia. There are others that may be required for foreign travel. An electronic record of the list and date of immunizations is a handy thing to have to verify your immunizations and, again, this is available electronically from your physician.
Be aware of any allergies you have to medicines or food. This should not be a problem unless you are unconscious and alone. For this reason, if you have a major food or medicine allergy, invest in a bracelet that you wear that clearly indicates your allergies. It may also be prudent to carry an EpiPen® if you have had or have been told you could have an anaphylactic (life-threatening) allergic reaction.
Eating & Drinking
One of the joys of travel is sampling the food and drinks of other places. It can also be one of the causes of great distress. Certain foods cause some people to have a variety of gastrointestinal responses, from vomiting and diarrhea to constipation. Likewise, anything one drinks — from water to the most sublime vodka — can cause problems. Water in some countries is notoriously unfit for drinking and some of the alcohols are potent. The obvious advice is to avoid bad water by drinking only bottled water and to eat foods that you trust to your stomach and intestines. The other rule is to remember — everything in moderation. Just because it tastes good does not mean it is either good for you or agreeable with your digestive tract. It is probably a good idea to talk with your physician about medicine you should take with you for nausea and vomiting and diarrhea. Better to have your own small supply than try to find it in a foreign land.
As we age, it is crucially important to stay hydrated. Normally we should drink 8 to 9 glasses of water or fluid a day to remain hydrated. However, if we are at higher altitudes, in the sun, out in the cold, out in the heat, exercising, or any number of other things that we tend to do while travelling, it is easy to get behind in our fluids. So drink lots of safe water when traveling. Failing to do so could lead to dizziness, fatigue, or other cardiovascular problems.
I know nobody wants to miss a thing. But sleep is necessary to a safe and healthy trip, just as it is at home. Travel itself generally disrupts sleep because of the inconvenience of schedules, being in unfamiliar surroundings, and general excitement. Add to that jet lag if traveling more than one time zone away from home. Jet lag is real and tends to affect people differently. It is worse going east than west, but a general rule is that it takes a day for every time zone one has crossed to really adapt to the new time. Jet lag also affects older people more than younger people. Symptoms of jet lag are disturbed sleep (insomnia and early waking), fatigue, mood changes, and a sense of “feeling bad.” Try to anticipate the change by going to bed earlier before travel if headed east, and go to bed later if headed west. Get plenty of rest before going — sleep can be stored up. Try to stay on the new time schedule once you arrive, no matter how difficult it is.
One way to avoid jet lag is to take a boat. Of course, you become subject to a new threat on the open water. As with jet lag, some people are more subject to this than others. I have a friend who can look at Charleston Harbor from the Battery and get sick! Certain risk factors make this a more likely problem: gender (women are more susceptible than men), alcohol, colds, and heavy and fatty foods are all risk factors. Chances are, you know if you are prone to seasickness. If so, take some medicine before and during your cruise to prevent it. Consult with your physician about what is best for you.
We have many friends who have had accidents or illnesses while away from home. For travel in this country, if over 65 you probably have Medicare and you are covered anywhere in the U.S. If you are younger than 65, check where you are going to see if your coverage works there. If in a foreign land, you will have the chance to find out for yourself the quality and cost of care, should you need it. Most people are shocked to find high-quality and very low cost when they have had to seek medical care abroad. Foreigners in our country are unfortunately exposed to the same problem as our uninsured when seeking assistance in this country.
The Bottom Line
Travel is one of the perks of being old. We can go to places we never had time to visit when younger. However, just like at home, we have to take care of ourselves and plan how best to maintain our health. There are many things to do before leaving that will help ensure a bon voyage.