Janet Robertson, a documentary filmmaker in New York, helps look after her uncle, Vincent Fahey. He is nearly 87 and loves to travel.
But she can’t always accompany Uncle Vin, who needs some day-to-day assistance. So when he wanted to visit London this past spring, Robertson did what others have started doing: She hired a skilled traveling companion for her older loved one.
For the London trip, Robertson found Doug Iannelli, owner of Flying Companions in Atlanta, to accompany her uncle.
Iannelli managed the travel reservations and logistics, slept in an adjoining hotel room and otherwise accompanied Fahey full time as they took in the museums, restaurants and tourist sites. When needed, Iannelli provided a wheelchair and made sure they took frequent rest breaks.
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In all, the seven-day trip cost about $10,000. And Robertson stayed in touch with the pair via text messages and photos.
“I felt more comfortable because I could follow along,” Robertson said.
The business of providing traveling companions for older adults is still new enough that there are no good statistics on who or how many provide such services. But they are cropping up – not only in the United States but in Europe and Asia – to cater to aging populations who have leisure time and money but diminished capacity for the rigors of travel.
Whether it is older people on vacation or grandparents wanting to join their far-flung families for weddings and graduations, there is a growing number of seniors willing to travel but needing help moving through airport security lines, managing luggage and navigating busy terminals and bustling hotel lobbies.
Travelers 65 and older now make up nearly 20 percent of domestic leisure passengers in the United States, according to the research firm TNS TravelsAmerica. That percentage is almost certain to grow; the federal government has forecast that the number of adults 85 and older in this country, which was 6 million in 2013, will reach 14.6 million in 2040.
Rebecca Rushing, director of client care services at FirstLight Home Care, a national network of franchises that provide in-home care for seniors, said her company started offering a travel companion program about three years ago. So far, about one-third of its 130 franchises provide the service. “We do expect that number to keep increasing,” she said.
Iannelli began his business nine years ago after helping a friend with disabilities fly to Minnesota.
“I realized there must also be people with nonmedical challenges that need help traveling,” he said. Since then, Iannelli said, he has flown worldwide with hundreds of clients.
The services aren’t cheap. Clients pay for the travel companion’s tickets, the companion’s hotel room if necessary, meals, incidentals and fees for the service. Iannelli said the price to accompany a client on a plane trip within the United States – including his fees and travel costs for all parties – might range from $2,800 to $4,500 for coach airfare. Business or first class, of course, would cost more.
Some companion services provide personal care like medication reminders, dressing, bathing and feeding. And for those with specific medical needs, traveling nurse services are available.
One such service is Travel Care & Logistics, which Cindy L. Schaefer, a registered nurse with a master’s degree, started in 2003 after becoming curious about the effects of airplane pressurization on seniors. She saw how hard air travel can be on older people if their physical needs are not properly met.
Her clients, who are accompanied by registered nurses, have taken more than 600 flights worldwide, Schaefer said. Costs range from about $3,000 to $5,000, which covers the planning and travel-care services for a nurse to accompany a traveler on a plane. That price does not include air tickets and other travel expenses.
A crucial step in the process, Schaefer said, is working ahead with the family to understand the traveler’s medical situation. People with dementia can become anxious when they travel, she said. Diabetes patients need their blood sugar monitored.
“Our goal is to get all the information we need, plan carefully, and show the family their loved one is in good hands,” Schaefer said.
It’s important for older people to stick to their medication schedule and stay hydrated, Schaefer said, and that’s not always easy for the family to do on its own. “Grandma doesn’t come with instructions,” she said.
Travel companions assist a range of clients. Older couples may be capable of traveling on their own but use the service to manage logistics on their vacation so they can simply enjoy the trip. Or a trip might include adult children, but they need extra help flying with a parent.
Schaefer said about 40 percent of her nurse-assisted flights include an additional family member.
One of Rushing’s clients was a grandfather who uses a wheelchair who treated his extended family to a cruise. He took a travel companion on the trip so the rest of the family would not spend time worrying about him.
Parinaz Vahabzadeh, a data scientist in New York City, said travel companion services have allowed her mother, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, to visit her more often than she could otherwise.
“I can travel one way with my mother,” she said, “but both ways for each trip across the country would be challenging.” The family has used the Flying Companions service nearly a dozen times over the last three years.
Robertson counts herself among the satisfied customers.
No sooner did her Uncle Vin return from London than he immediately began planning to travel to Florida with Iannelli in October to visit friends. He is also angling to get to Rome.
“He could not possibly make these trips without a companion,” Robertson said.
5 things to check
As you research the options, you will want to ask some basic questions.
Experience: How many trips has the companion taken with clients, and to which destinations? Have they completed trips with travelers like yours? How long has the travel service company been in business?
Safety: Is the companion trained to manage the traveler’s specific personal and medical needs? What sort of medical certifications do they have? (Nursing credentials? CPR training? Others?)
What is the company’s safety record? What sort of insurance does it carry, and what and who does it cover?
Personality: Does the companion seem warm, friendly, caring and detail-oriented?
Cost: Clarify what you will be paying for, in addition to the companion’s fees. Additional costs are likely to include the companion’s transportation, meals, lodging and incidentals.
References: Speak to two or three clients, ideally ones who have used the service multiple times.