“Seniors Undaunted—Airport Adventures”

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Sheila Signer has spent her life as a writer, singer/songwriter, world traveler and photographer. She now has Benson’s syndrome, a rare form of Alzheimer’s which affects visual processing. Sheila shares how the disease has affected her lifelong passion for traveling below.

The flight to Seattle had been a breeze. Our friendly little Santa Rosa airport has one boarding gate and two flights out a day. Portland Airport, a perfectly nice mid-size airport, well organized enough for most people to make their way through without trouble, was hard for me this year. I had done it the year before. With that under my belt, I plunged in.

It’s a pain to park at the airport and my friend Mel couldn’t be with me through Security anyway, so he dropped me at the curb and hugged me goodbye. I hitched up my backpack, gathered my two other bags, and looked around for the entrance to the terminal.

I was relieved to see a baggage check stand right there in front of me. To avoid fumbling at the check-in counter, I stepped aside and pulled out my ID, credit card, boarding pass, and money for a tip, along with the huge plastic bag I’d brought to make sure nothing would fall out. Then I got in line and waited for my turn.

What a relief when I finally unhitched and slid my backpack down to the floor. It never seemed so heavy as at the end of a trip. The young man at check-in seemed tired too, and he scowled when I asked him to please put my backpack into the plastic bag. Then he asked me to hold the bag open while he put the backpack in.

I didn’t know what to do. If I moved my carefully sorted documents and tightly clutched money to help him, I might drop something in the process. I stood mute and stupid, not knowing what to do. I agonized while he stuffed the backpack into the bag. I mumbled an apology for being such a dope. Then I berated myself for putting myself down.

I came out of my reverie of self-recrimination to hear the young man speaking in a kinder tone. Pleased, but puzzled, I finally caught on when I heard him talking about the noisy street and how hard it was hard for him to hear. “By the time I’m 35,” he said sorrowfully, “I’ll be wearing a hearing aid.”

I shook my head in sympathy and then we said goodbye, with warm good wishes.

Getting into the terminal turned out to be yet another challenge. How hard can it be to find the door? How can I be sure when to get into the revolving door?

I went around the revolving door a few times, and then took my leap of faith, managing to avoid any mayhem in the process.

Once inside, I found a bench to sit and catch my bearings, and put away my documents. Next, I set off to find Security. There was no one in sight, and not a sign or clue. I chose at random to go left, and finally, I found an airline ticket counter with a bored-looking airport employee who sent me back in the opposite direction to a huge dimly lit hall, vibrating with a low roar. It seemed as if every person in the whole airport was crammed in there.

I had no idea how to find the end of the line in a room jammed with people. I went up to the first person I could find with a badge on his chest and was told that I was in the middle of the line but that he might allow me in if I just waited. Heart pounding, I waited for his grudging go-ahead and then joined the fray.

I inched along with the masses. I located an empty basket, took off my shoes, put my possessions in the basket onto the moving belt, and watched them disappear into the dark hole, hoping fervently that they would reappear. My heart was still pounding as I moved along, trying to look normal.

Then I was motioned into the X-ray stall. “Put your arms like the picture,” the man said. But where was the picture? No matter how hard I tried, I could not locate the pattern on the wall. Finally, the security guard raised his own arms and I got it. How embarrassing! I gratefully retrieved my possessions, put on my shoes, and went on to the next adventure.

Where was my gate? How would I get there? I couldn’t seem to find the information in the tiny print on my boarding pass. I scanned the room for someone to ask for help and settled for a tall, slender woman in a long skirt with two little girls neatly in tow who looked like she could handle just about anything. I walked over. “Excuse me, could you help me read my boarding pass?” She caught on quickly. A few moments and I knew what gate I needed and was pointed down the appropriate corridor. Thank you, kind stranger. I was on my way.

There were more kind strangers and more wrong turns before my airport adventure was over. When I finally reached the boarding gate area, the place was jammed, not a place to sit and hardly a wall to lean on.

At least I was in good time, about half an hour from boarding, but no place to sit and my mouth dry as a bone. I was still clutching that five-dollar bill left over from what I gave the skycap but I couldn’t find a place to sit and have a drink, so I just walked around. Suddenly, a sprightly woman in her 70s came over. “You look like you need a place to sit,” she said. She was having a beer, and invited me to share her table. It looked great, but I settled for a cup of tea. She sipped her beer while I drank peppermint tea, and we swapped airport anecdotes. Nice woman, good company.

My adventure was still not over. After checking in and showing my pass, I stepped outside and went down a long outdoor corridor before I realized that I had gone too far. There was no one around, and once again I was distraught. After a few minutes a young woman airport employee appeared, and escorted me back to the gate.

I was grateful to reach my seat, and was blessed with a delightful seat mate, a perky woman with pink cheeks and silver hair with a sense of humor and delight in life…

Remember, “Do what you can and get help when you need it.” It makes for a very interesting life!

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3 Responses

  1. Diane Ryken says:

    Well done, Sheila! As courageous and adaptable as ever. Really liked the article. It exposes so many aspects of process that most of us take for granted. Do keep writing and describing….

    Thank you for sending me this link. I’m proud of you, as always!

  2. Lari Mussatti says:

    Wish all flight service people could read this as well as travelers . Airport adventures are very stressful for everyone but more so if you have special needs !! Very well written with warmth and genuine good will. Love it !!

  3. Karla Nygaard says:

    Sheila Signer is a dear friend of mine, and I’ve always been so impressed with her ability to travel the globe so freely. She is truly a citizen of the world. She continues to be an inspiration to me.

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