Traveling With A Senior

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Travel Writer

My father once made a trip overseas. The year was 1955, Europe was struggling to rebuild itself from postwar trauma, and my dad shipped out for Lausanne, Switzerland, to spend a year at conservatory. When his studies were finished, he went to Paris for a week to tour the Louvre. Then he came home, satisfied that he had seen Europe.

Exactly 50 years later, he renewed his ancient passport and went back to Paris, this time for a cousin’s wedding. “Paris is exactly the same,” he said, wandering through the Marais, waving dismissively at the boulangeries. “Nothing’s changed.”

Traveling with older relatives can give you surprising perspectives. It can be illuminating, challenging, at times exasperating. It can also be frustrating to younger, spryer travelers, accustomed to a carpe-diem pace and eager to do it all.

Travelers of extreme age — the very old and the very young — tend to have some things in common. Small children and older adults require certain routines and physical accommodations to feel good, and they cannot be pushed physically without unpleasant consequences. As my mother, a real trooper on the road, put it at age 69: “The spirit is willing; the knees, not so much.”

Planning, therefore, is essential for this age group. In choosing a destination, consider the terrain and the senior’s particular agility. With urban destinations, bear in mind that some cities are compact and largely flat, with excellent public transit; others are thick with tiny steps, awkward cobblestones, footbridges, and steep hills. Or they are spread out and difficult to manage, or have less-than-terrific public transit.

In the first, more accessible category are Paris, Barcelona, Miami Beach, the Scandinavian capitals, Washington, much of Israel, and Santa Fe, to name just a few. Craggy, hilly Italy and San Francisco, sprawling Buenos Aires, and the cobblestoned, elevator-deprived cities of Eastern Europe fall into the second. Many cities have websites with information about the accessibility of their transit systems. A surfeit of inexpensive taxis — lifesavers when somebody’s knee gives out or a stroll has turned exhausting — is always welcome.

For less urban getaways, look for resorts with plenty to do on-site — beaches, game rooms, spas, concerts. There’s a reason cruises are popular with seniors: they offer a wide range of activities essentially in one place, so travelers of varying mobility can all find something to do.

When it comes to getting around, car travel is almost always preferable to buses and trains. The latter can lurch perilously, challenging those with iffy balance, and the flexibility of being able to pull over for a rest stop is key on a longer haul.

Health emergencies can happen to anyone, but with older travelers, it’s especially wise to think ahead and buy traveler’s health insurance for foreign travel, as your home insurance probably won’t cover treatment abroad. Popular providers like TravelGuard offer plans that help provide peace of mind for a few hundred dollars, including emergency evacuation if an ankle gets broken during a rainforest hike.

Changing location is exhausting (at any age, really), and for older folks, it should be kept to a minimum to help preserve stamina and joints for the fun stuff. My grandfather, who took up world travel at 85, used this strategy of exploring one locale at a time. Newly widowed after a half-century marriage, he indulged his wanderlust with relaxed, weeklong jaunts to Amsterdam, London, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.

He always stayed at first-class hotels, which brings me to another crucial point: Creature comforts are far more important to our elderly parents, and we need to respect that. At 35, you can bunk on the floor, get by on five hours of sleep or deal with an uphill schlep to the bus stop. At 65, that sleep is harder-won and more critical, and older joints require softer beds — at a comfortable height from the floor.

After years of travel with both of my 70ish parents, I’ve come to the conclusion that a rental apartment is ideal. For stays of more than a few days, renting is usually an economical option — either through local vacation agencies like Homeaway.com or through websites like Airbnb.com or Craigslist. An apartment allows my parents to feel at home: making tea or eating cereal at whatever hour they choose, spreading out across several spacious rooms for morning stretches and late-night TV, saying hello to the neighbors. Also, with an apartment you know exactly what you’re getting; you can ask lots of questions and see photos in advance.

Younger travelers have to respect — and anticipate — older companions’ need for routine and manageable pace. There may be complicated prayer, pill or exercise rituals, a mealtime that doesn’t quite gel with local standards, or a restorative afternoon time-out. When I was younger, I used to foolishly lecture my mom on the importance of adapting to local customs. Nowadays, I realize a degree of flexibility is called for — something I’ll only appreciate fully when I’m their age.

Perhaps most important of all is learning to value the perspective that older travelers offer. My parents will always see Europe through a wartime lens, and Jewish museums are especially poignant for them. They gaze in wonder at the proliferation of Starbucks and KFCs abroad, totems of globalization that my generation takes for granted.

Younger people tend to see themselves as travelers, not tourists --- as world citizens experiencing foreign cultures as a local would. Older travelers, born into a far less connected world, grew up in an age when foreign travel was a real event, and not a frequent one. My parents and grandparents marvel at the most widely recognized signs of foreignness, savoring differences I might take for granted: the unexpected shapes and colors of local money, say, or the odd phrasings on a translated menu.

My mother looks at the Ponte Vecchio and sees a different Florence from the one I see, crowded with African souvenir-hawkers and fake Vuitton venders. She tells me about the old family jewelers who used to ply the filigree trade here, crafting the lovely gold earrings she still treasures. The world has changed, she says — and for that perspective, I’ll gladly trade an extra museum for her post-prandial nap.

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