For people with disabilities or other health issues, motorhoming often is the best way to experience new destinations.
By Kim Colavito Markesich
Vangie Otten has coped with rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years. She’s endured 11 surgeries and continues to require various medical treatments. Yet these health issues have not stopped her and her husband, Lee, from enjoying the traveling lifestyle. For the past 15 years they’ve been able to get away, thanks to their RV.
“It would be very difficult if you were on the road just traveling in a car, staying in hotels,” she said. “This way, you have your own home. Everything you’re familiar with is right there. You never feel like you’re disoriented …. Your clothes are hanging in the closet; you have your own food; you don’t have to put up with hotels and different smells. You know it’s clean. And when you get sick, there’s nothing like coming back to your own [RV], because that is home.”
Motorhoming opens doors to many who may have thought that traveling was not an option because of a disability or chronic illness. Not only does an RV allow them to roll down the road in comfort, but once they’ve reached their destination, everything they may need to help them cope with their medical condition can be right at hand.
Eleven years ago, Ray and Betty Swyer bought their first motorhome. Betty suffers from respiratory and heart conditions, so the couple spends every winter away from their primary residence in Iowa. “I think I’m better off traveling,” she said. “It’s cold at home. We’ve been able to enjoy this a great deal. We’ve met a lot of wonderful people. Everybody is friendly and warm.”
According to Jim Lubinskas, public relations manager for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), numerous RV manufacturers and coach converters offer special equipment or modifications for travelers with special needs, including wheelchair lifts or ramps, lower kitchen counters and cabinets, widened entrances, roll-in showers, and brighter lighting. In addition, many campgrounds include amenities such as wider, level lots that accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, and electric scooters.
“Some of the folks with mobility problems have built regular steps with a railing,” Vangie explained. “We have a little box that we step on and sit on if we need to. Our friend Mimi uses a walker to get around. She doesn’t need it in her [RV], because there are plenty of things to hold onto, so she keeps the walker handy for outdoors.”
Roland Winters, president of the Handicapped Travel Club, said that things are changing for the better for folks with disabilities. “Some of the RV parks have made great advances,” Mr. Winters said. “What is essential is a flat, level parking area with lots of room for a wheelchair. We’re also looking for paved rather than dirt areas, and flat rather than hilly parks.”
The club’s Web site includes a list of special-needs-friendly campgrounds located in 19 states around the country as well as in Alberta, Canada. Club directors travel and inspect parks for handicapped accessibility. The club also will refer travelers to companies skilled at retrofitting motorhomes.
“The manufacturers and campgrounds are beginning to realize there is a market out there,” Mr. Winters said. “Previously, people who were disabled in a wheelchair stayed home, but that’s no longer true. There are a number of people in our club who are severely disabled but manage to get out there and have a good time.”
FMCA members with disabilities have yet another option: the Achievers International chapter. The chapter was chartered in 1986 to provide support to association members with special needs and boasts approximately 200 member families today. The Achievers meet twice each year at FMCA international conventions.
For many people, living in a motorhome actually simplifies their lives. Sheila Cedar is a retired nurse with a lifelong zest for travel. Her husband, Ralph, has diminished vision resulting from optic nerve damage. “A smaller place is easier, because he gets to know it better,” Sheila said. “There’s so much less maintenance. You’ve still got work to do, but less. You spend about 30 percent of your time cooking and cleaning, as opposed to 60 percent of your time working in a big house.”
Whether recovering from surgery or some other medical procedure, Vangie Otten has also found that living in a motorhome is easier. “The RV is so much handier,” she said. “You have something to hold onto all the time. The bathroom is three feet from the bed and the refrigerator three or four feet from there. It’s a great place for someone to recuperate.”
Of course, being away from a primary physician, medical specialist, or treatment facility may require some extra planning. Vangie’s illness requires her to have scheduled treatments at a hospital. She spoke with her regular physician, and he was more than happy to find a facility that could treat her during the winters away.
There are also instances where special equipment or medication is necessary. Betty Swyer has used an oxygen concentrator at night for the past 10 years. The machine travels in the motorhome, always accessible when needed.
Mary Colavito, who travels alone, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She requires oxygen at night and uses several bronchial inhalers. “I’ve never had a problem getting oxygen or medication,” She said. “I call the company for the oxygen, and they have it delivered [to the campground] before I arrive. I order my medication from a chain pharmacy. They have stores all over the country, so I’m able to get my medication wherever I am living. Before I leave, my doctor gives me enough refills for the winter.”
Another issue that concerns many travelers is finding medical attention away from home. But Vangie doesn’t worry about becoming ill while traveling. “If you’re going down the road and you get sick, you just look for those “H” signs that say ‘hospital,’ follow those babies, and don’t think a thing of it.”
However, getting adequate treatment once at the hospital does require some planning. It’s important for anyone who has special needs to carry a complete medical history with them while on the road. Sheila Cedar makes a point of keeping the couple’s medical records on hand whenever they travel. Vangie and her husband have created a list of their prescribed medications that is posted in the RV in full view. “If there were ever an accident or emergency, the EMT [emergency medical technician] would know exactly what medications we’re taking,” she said.
Sheila also suggested that RV travelers research their primary health insurance and Medicare supplement insurance coverage. Travelers need to select a policy that provides out-of-network or out-of-area coverage.
While those who suffer a disabling injury or illness may initially see only limitations to what they can do, traveling in a motorhome can introduce folks to experiences they never knew existed. Sheila said she believes that meeting new people during their travels has helped her and her husband to stay younger, allows them to be more flexible with their plans, and promotes a healthier lifestyle. “When we’re back home, the winters are cold,” she said. “We tend to watch TV and stay inside. When we’re here we go outside and walk or swim. You never lack for activities.”
The traveling lifestyle also allows them to meet new people and become part of an RVing community. Mary Colavito, who spends the chillier months in Biloxi, Mississippi, with her “winter family,” said the support of friends affords her the opportunity to travel each year while feeling safe as a single. “Sometimes the kids worry about those of us traveling alone, but we’re not alone,” she said. “Down here there’s a whole group of us. We look after one another and help out. If someone is sick, we run errands or make meals.
“I have my own place. The RV has everything I need, all the comforts of a house, but with much less work. I can keep this place up without any trouble. I’m able to live somewhere warm in the winter, which is definitely a plus with my COPD. We have a great time. And I’m never lonely.”
Whether you’re living with an illness or a severe disability, RV travel can open up a window to the world. Mr. Winters summed it up perfectly: “There is no sense in sitting home on the porch and watching the world go by. Our travel club motto is G.O.A.L. It stands for ‘Get Out And Live.'”
E-mail: [email protected]
FMCA chapter. Special interest: Individuals with physical disabilities.
Handicapped Travel Club
604 Twilight St. X-Placentia, CA 92870
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
1896 Preston White Drive X-Reston, VA 20195