Dick Weinman is an AARP Volunteer Blogger and an Assisted Living Guru

I recently flew from my home — well, not really a “home”, but an Assisted Living Facility, which you should know if you’ve followed my blogs on AARP. I live with 40 or so other gray hairs – or no hairs – in my congregate space. 

From the Pacific Northwest, I cruised the “friendly skies” – those United Airlines commercials are imbedded in my brain – to visit family on the Atlantic Ocean edge of Massachusetts – a coast-to-coast, cross country, six hour sitting in one place&position, bad-for-deep-vein-thrombosis, three-hour-time differential trip. Without benefit of frequent flyer miles, I flew First Class. That did it.  From now on, that will be the only way to go.

But, for future flights, my new-found flying preference could cause a problem.  Because of my bi-monthly blogs for AARP, which reveal a resident’s perspective of life in an ALF, as well as the documentary I produced on ALF living, I’ve been asked to speak at conferences of government and private organizations which are concerned with Long Term Care living for elders and the disabled; organizations – from Washington (D.C.) to Washington (State) and other cities nation-wide.  Most of these organizations have budget restrictions, including the cost of flying speakers like me to present at their meetings. And, because of my recently discovered travel preference, I cost more.

  A first class fare may be prohibitive in price, but it’s necessary to avoid anxiety.  In my new travel mode, I’m enabled, not disabled.

I’m ensconced in a wide, cushy cushioned seat, with football-field wide leg space. I’m served real food, and, most importantly, a pleasantly officious young man or woman facilitates a comfortable, comforting flight.

It’s different from how I spend most of my time on terra firma, squeezed between two arm rails of a wheelchair. Because of my non-usable left arm/hand/fingers, and a partial functioning right one – I need that one-to-one traveler-to-flight-attendant relationship.

For example, I need her hand to hold while I shuffle from the open cabin door to my seat. In first class, the distance is only a few doddering steps away. Then I need her extra two hands to buckle the safety belt. And in the same multi-tasking moment, I need her to rise on her toes to use her fingers to open the storage area above the seats, – then from up-to-down – bend over to grasp the handle of my carry-on duffle, stretch up again on her toes and lift the carry-on duffle, stretch her/his arms to place it in the compartment, using her hands and arm to fit it properly. Then — on this up-to-down cycle — I need her to bend down and put my travel bag under the seat in front of me.

That’s about twelve body/leg/arm/hand movements which, as a disabled eighty-three year old, I can’t do.

And the plane hasn’t moved yet!

But here’s more enabling to come: hot cloths to wash the face are passed out – I need help unfolding the cloth. Drinks are provided – my hand can’t fit around a glass so I need the flight attendant to withdraw my-handled-plastic-cup-from-my-travel-bag-under-the-seat-in front of mine, and the water/wine/whiskey poured into it.

After cleansing hands and sipping the non-diuretic beverage, there’s the meal. The eating tray which is sunk deep in the arm-rest needs to be lifted from its enclosure and, the eating surface separated from its handle; the silver ware, wrapped or taped in a napkin, needs to be freed from its cloth protection.  Once arrived, the food needs to be cut for me, since I can’t hold a fork and a knife in my two separate hands.  A roll needs buttering.  I can’t put butter on the roll since I can’t hold both the knife and roll simultaneously to do it — more time and individual attention has to be focused on me by the first class flight attendant.

Have we reached 36,000 feet yet?

Even when we have, there’re other flight attendant’s  arms/hands/fingers/trunks/legs I ask  to use: I can’t stretch my arms and reach I the button alert at the bottom of the carry-on storage area to get the attention of the flight attendant, nor do my fingers have the strength to depress it once the finger rests on it.  I call upon my row mate to stand/stretch/push.  I need two friendly hands to put headsets on – I can’t remove them from their plastic wrap, separate them, and stretch them over each ear with one half-working hand. As for trying to use the movie/TV tablet – I’ll read a book, instead. But to do that, I need my row mate to stand and press the button to alert the flight attendant, who needs to bend down and reach her arm under the seat in front of me and take out my book and dig her fingers around the bottom of the travel bag to find my page turning tool and reach her hand into the arm rest to extract the eating/reading/tablet-resting tray.

And reverse the action while descending. 

You may be wondering, if I require all these complicated body part activities while flying first class, why not avoid them all by flying tourist? I’ll tell you:  I can’t.  Even without the hot wash cloth and the real meal, I have the same needs – without the space and flight attendant time to accomplish them.  Even if it’s only temporary – the personal, one-to-one care, the attitude of  “I’m here to assist you and make your six unmoving, boring, maybe anxious, hours in the sky as easy and comfortable as I can – the relationship is important to this brief episode in life.

It’s what makes the skies friendly.

[Photo: Robert B. Miller]

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