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Ten Travel Tips For Stroke Survivors
By Paul Berger, Stroke Survival Expert

I have always loved to travel, to go to new places, meet new people, and see new things. After college, I backpacked through Europe and Central America. When I met my wife, Stephanie, we traveled together (with suitcases) staying in bed-and-breakfasts or small hotels.

After my stroke, I wanted to continue to travel. I knew it would be difficult, but with a little planning, we were able to go, go, go.

Here are my ten tips for traveling after stroke.

1.Take a practice trip. Start small, drive somewhere in your own car, and learn from your experiences. Then work your way up to longer trips. After my stroke, my first overnight trip was driving from my home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. to visit my parents and friends in Philadelphia.

I was still dependent on my wheelchair, and since my parents' house was not accessible, we had to stay at a nearby hotel. We learned a lot about accessibility, about how to plan ahead, and how to be flexible when your plans don't work out. For example, gas station restrooms can be difficult.

2. Take your own chair. My first trip after giving up my wheelchair was to visit Annapolis, about an hour from DC. Since I could only walk a few steps at a time, Stephanie carried a folding lawn chair for me. We parked near the harbor, and I walked, sat, walked, sat, walked, sat, then had a nice dinner.

Today, I use a folding cane-seat when I travel or go to a museum or anyplace where I expect to walk and stand for a while, where seating may not be available. I have learned that most public places do not have enough chairs or benches.

3. Select the right place to stay. When I travel, I want to spend a lot of time sightseeing. However, after my stroke, I found that I was spending a considerable amount of time in the hotel, because it takes longer to wash and dress, and I get tired earlier in the evening. Planning for the right place to stay will make your trip more enjoyable. Here are some key things to consider:

  • Bathroom. Even though I no longer use a wheelchair, I ask for accessible bathrooms, for the safety of grab-bars and seats.
  • Stairs. If there is no elevator, I ask for a room on the ground floor.
  • Access. I look for places that have restaurants or restaurants nearby. Also, when possible, I prefer places that are in easy walking distance to sightseeing attractions.
  • View the place. Most places have websites with online photographs. Seeing the place helps me decide if it will be right for me. For example, when we went to Ireland, we used the Irish Tourist Board's guidebook with photos and detailed descriptions of numerous bed-and-breakfasts. We were able to select modern-looking one-level guest houses that offered a private bathroom. That way, I wouldn't have to worry about climbing stairs to get to our room or to the bathroom.
  • Call and ask questions. Before we book our room, Stephanie calls and asks questions. For example, I can use a shower stall more safely than climbing in and out of a bathtub. When we went to Ireland, we specifically asked for a room with a shower.

4. Consider taking a bus tour. I have taken half-day bus tours as well as two-week bus trips. For example, when I've gone with Stephanie on her business trips, I'll take a tour of the city on a bus while she's attending her meeting. We took a long bus trip to see Spain. There are trade-offs to consider. As a stroke survivor, I am usually the slowest person in the group, and sometimes it is a struggle to keep up. However, a guided tour means that Stephanie doesn't have to drive.

5. Try to fly non-stop in an aisle seat. The extra expense of a non-stop flight is worth it.

  • If I have to make a connection, I try to get more time between flights. Stephanie calls the airline to find out how far we'll have to go to get to the connecting terminal.
  • To deal with my weak right leg and brace, I ask for an aisle seat.

6. Train for the trip. Plan to walk more than you do at home. When I am away from home, there is always more walking and more obstacles for stroke survivors than at home. I trained to get into shape for all the walking I wanted to do on our tour of Spain by trying to walk every day, pushing myself to take a few extra steps. By the time we took our trip, I could walk more than a mile.

7. Take extra copies of the travel itinerary. Before I leave for a trip, Stephanie and I plan what time we need to leave for the airport, how long it will take to get to our hotel, etc. This makes us think about how much extra time and other things I will need because of my stroke

Then we type a travel itinerary by date and time, including all the information about the flights, hotel address and phone, car rental information, confirmation numbers, and anything else important. We give copies to our family and pet-sitter, pack a copy, and each have one in our pockets. I refer to it constantly.

8. Airports are no fun anymore. This is especially true when you have had a stroke.

  • Check luggage. We check as much luggage as we can at the curb, and take only a small, lightweight carry-on
  • Carry-on. I use a shoulder bag, since I only have the use of one hand. I pack it with just my basic toiletries and medications, a magazine, and my travel information.
  • Security. Before entering the line, I sit down, empty my pockets, and put my wallet, keys, pocket notebook, pen, and change into a large plastic zip-close bag. This goes into my shoulder bag, which I can easily place on the security belt. Once through security, I put the items back in my pockets
  • Shoes. I wear sneakers with Velcro straps to make it easier to take my shoes and brace off.
  • Wheelchair and early boarding. For my first trips after my stroke, I asked for a wheelchair and for early boarding. I learned not to depend on these services, since they don't always come through. You have to be flexible. It helps to travel with someone like Stephanie, who can "advocate" for you with the airlines personnel.
  • Rental carts. If we have a few checked bags, we will use a rental cart to push them from the luggage claim area to the rental car or taxi pick-up. All of our bags have wheels, but often it is easier to stack them on a cart than try to wheel them all through the airport.

9. Coping with Aphasia. Museum and tour guides often have accents, talk fast, and quote many names, dates, and numbers. I deal with this by:

  • Asking Stephanie to write key items in my pocket notebook
  • Taking any free brochures
  • Buying postcards or a nice picture book as a souvenir.

10. Traveling Alone. This is difficult for me with my disabilities, but not impossible. For example, I visited my parents in Florida when Stephanie had to work.

  • Leave early. Having a stroke means that I do everything slower, so I always plan to have extra time to get to the gate.
  • Take one bag. I packed "light," fitting everything into one carry-on size wheeled bag.
  • Have travel information written down. I had a note card with all the flight information written on one side so I could easily refer to it. I showed the taxi driver the card, so he knew to take me to Dulles Airport, and to the right airlines. On the back of the card was my parents' address and phone number in Florida, as well as my home address, phone, Stephanie's work phone, and directions to my house to show the taxi driver when I returned.
  • Ask for help. I asked for help to find my gate. Once on the airplane, I had a little trouble in the narrow aisle, and had to ask another passenger and the flight attendant to lift my carry-on into the overhead compartment.

Bonus Tip. Take your sense of humor. Traveling with the use of one-hand, a slow walk, and aphasia can be funny.

  • In Spain, I communicated better than Stephanie. While she was looking up words in her Spanish-English dictionary, I was way ahead of her by using my universal "aphasia" language: a few gestures and facial expressions.
  • Many of the so-called accessible bathrooms were funny, like the one where the shower seat was so far from the showerhead, I had to walk back and forth to shower.
  • One accessible ground floor motel room overlooked the pool. But it was an indoor pool, so you could see right into our room. Even with the drapes closed we could hear the kids running and splashing and screaming until it closed at 11 pm.


Copyright (c) Paul E. Berger 
Permission is granted to reprint this article
in your newsletter or magazine only with the following byline:
"Paul Berger is a speaker and author.
To find out more about his programs and services,
or call (703) 241-2375."

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