Tips for Traveling With A Senior

Stella from NY

I recently completed a trip to Italy, visiting Rome and Florence with my 78-year old mother. While I in no way profess to be an expert, I did learn a few things about traveling with a senior that may be useful to others planning a trip to Italy with an elderly parent or grandparent.

To preface, let me make clear my own context. My mother is relatively fit and healthy; at home she lives alone, volunteers, and drives, but she has a pin and two steel rods in her hip which limit her mobility, she takes regular medications that have side effects, and she can tire easily. She has glasses, but still has trouble seeing things in front of her, and her hearing is not entirely sharp. Some of these facts are minor issues; others are more significant. Each bore some amount of consideration. All in all, our trip was a success because of some deliberate decisions on my part, as well some tips I discovered along the way.

My mother has limited travel experience; she had been to Italy seven years ago on an organized bus tour for seniors, and she travels from New York to visit my brother in Virginia several times a year. On those short trips, she spends most of her time at his home, visiting with her grandchildren. Mom is not accustomed to the often rigorous itinerary of a tourist; she rarely traveled as an adult, and has not indulged herself with as many vacations as she deserved.

I have been to Italy three times prior to 2005, and have traveled to quite a few locations in the United States. My travel style is often a cross between a very organized traveler and somewhat of a wanderer; I like to balance schedule with spontaneity. Traveling with a senior, as I learned, requires much more of my spontaneous nature and quite less of my Virgo tendencies to make lists and adhere to them.

It is, and should be, all about them

The first thing you should do is surrender to the primary focus of the trip; this one is not all about you, it is about your beloved elderly parent, grandparent, friend, or relative. You must adjust your very notion of travel, time, agendas, schedules, and goals; I found that I was constantly reminding myself that I have plenty more trips in my future and this one would be solely for my Mom and I to enjoy together. Therefore, anything I wanted to do was merely a “wish” or a “maybe.” Not only in terms of the big picture, but hour by hour, day by day. Seniors move at a different pace, and they have different physical, and as I learned, emotional needs, and you must dial your own needs way back.

Consider your destination

In short, as stated above, it is indeed all about them, and the right location is the first step towards planning a great trip. I chose to bring my mother to cities because we would have conveniences at our fingertips, as well as ease of transportation in the form of taxis and buses. I did not want my mother to feel limited, so I did not choose a location that presented too many limitations.

The coastlines and countryside of some regions of Italy can be physically challenging for fit and healthy adults, and may be nearly impossible for a senior with mobility issues. See above; you are secondary, so pick a place that will meet senior needs and provide plenty of things to see and do. A villa in the countryside may fit the bill if the goal is simply to relax and stay put; a medium-sized city or small village may also be entirely appropriate.

It is important to visualize your trip, step by step, with the details that will impact your traveling senior, and discuss those details if it is appropriate. Consider the time of year and the weather as well. Summer, with its crowds and heat can be challenging to any traveler, and downright dangerous for a senior citizen. Don’t try to cram in too many locations, either. As I learned, getting to and fro can be formidable.

A vacation rental is the only way to go

Ok, maybe not the only way to go, but it may be the best way to go. I sure am glad I did not go with a hotel. My mother definitely needed to make a routine for herself in order to feel comfortable; she needed a kitchen to make her cups of tea and have her morning breakfast, she needed a living room to relax in with her knitting or a book, as well as a bedroom and bathroom of her own for respectful privacy, and space in which to putter about with comfort. Would she have survived in a hotel? Yes. Would she have been as comfortable? No way.

When you consider a vacation rental, or a hotel for that matter, make sure any mobility issues are addressed. We had an elevator in both of our buildings in Rome and Florence. Contemplate the most minute of details and ask lots of questions about possible rentals. The entrance to one of the apartment buildings we stayed in had five stones steps to get to the elevator; I assumed that they would not be a problem when I learned of them, but it turned out that Mom needed my help to navigate those stairs every day. I learned to think twice about “minor” details like that. What seems like a small number of steps to me is not necessarily so for my mother.

Time is entirely relative

On my past solo trips, I used to be raring to go in the morning; I would awaken, shower, dress and be out the door in an hour. Retired persons like my mother are used to going at their own pace at home, and do not necessarily switch back and forth from a daily grind to a “vacation” mode. It may take hours to have breakfast, get dressed, and plan the day, because that is what happens at home, too.

Some days, no matter what I had planned, my mother needed the agenda changed to adapt to how tired or energized she was feeling. Plan for some “rest days;” these will allow you to then take the opportunity to spend a morning exploring by yourself or going to the market for food or supplies. Plan a simple walk to the market together in the morning, or a nice nap for after lunch. You will find that this completely different notion of vacation time is comfortable for you, too. I never napped more than I did on vacation with my mother, and I really liked it!

Enjoy the absence of a plan

As alluded to above, make only loose plans for each day, and allow for several options depending on the energy level. If your senior feels like there are several great choices of activities on a given day, he or she won’t feel guilty, or like the spoiler, if they aren’t quite feeling up to that day trip or museum tour.

And remember to surrender your notion of plans and schedules; no matter how well-intentioned they may be, you may discover that your travel partner doesn’t enjoy museums or churches as much as you thought they would, or that simply sitting in a piazza and people-watching provides just the right amount of enjoyment and stimulation. Sometimes, just a slow walk around the neighborhood or to the lively market stalls was plenty to fill my mother’s entire plate.

This is not to suggest that there should be no plans; some museums require advance reservations and you won’t have the luxury of just winging it. In that case, consider the mobility issues, make the reservations, and space out the plans with plenty of loose days in between. Check the cancellation policies of any tour companies; many offer partial or full refunds up to 48 hours in advance.

Consider Museum visits carefully

Museums can be hot or chilly, the hard, tile floors are tough on the legs and feet, and the lighting and crowds can have adverse effects. There may be many flights of stairs to climb to get to the exhibits. Check the websites of any museums on your list to see if there are elevators available. Organized tours may seem like a good idea, but even in very small numbers your senior may not be able to keep up. It may be a better option to hire a docent for a private tour rather than book spots on a group tour. E-mail the tour company and ask if the tour is suitable for seniors, and get their suggestions for options.

I signed Mom and I up for a Context tour in both Florence and Rome; the tour of the Uffizi was much rougher than I thought it would be for her, and she had to sit in some of the rooms, missing the discussion. It made our docent feel badly, and it made my mother feel badly. We had discussed it before the trip; even though Mom had been excited about the Uffizi, neither she nor I realized how tiring it would be. Luckily I was able to cancel one of the tours I booked in Rome; we did have a great time on the other one, of the Galleria Borghese, which was much shorter and entirely enjoyable for my mother.

Be aware that all of the wonderful art in Italy can result in sensory overload for anyone, and this can be especially intense for a senior. Quite often, my mother was simply overwhelmed by everything around her. Pay attention to the cues and head for a cafe when things get too intense, or plan the following day for simply strolling and window-shopping.

Provide peace of mind

In each location, find an English-speaking doctor and 24-hour pharmacy; have those numbers handy and available for both you and your senior traveler. If your vacation rental does not provide this information, ask; the same goes for your hotels.

Purchase or rent a cell phone, or get a calling card with plenty of credit. If your senior wants to check in on the dog at home, or call her sister, or get in touch with anyone else of importance, make it convenient and easy, so he or she does not feel cut off from their world.

Go to the ATM together and let your senior withdraw some money them self (this was a big pride issue with my mother, even though the trip was my treat); and make sure they have some Euros of their own in the case of an emergency. Put passports in a safe place that both of you are aware of; make sure you and your senior both travel with copies of each other’s, plus a list of emergency contact numbers.

Pack together; transportation will be your biggest challenge

I think that transporting yourself and your own luggage, as well as caring for your senior travel partner and looking after his or her luggage is a huge hurdle. My mother packed way too much; which was my own fault for not packing with her. We wound up being two people with five pieces of luggage. Mom could wheel one suitcase, slowly, and that left me with the other four bags and the need to sprout two more arms. It is stressful getting onto and off of trains, getting to and from the airport gate. Whenever possible, use the luggage carts provided; better yet, check with your airline to see what assistance is available. If you hire a driver, inquire if they can help transport you and your bags to the gate. The most important rule of all – pack light and do laundry.

Above all, enjoy the quiet times

Being a tourist is secondary, spending time together on a special trip is what is most special. I learned more about my mother than I ever expected to on our wonderful trip. During those calm days of relaxation and peace, my mother told me stories about her childhood in Calabria that she had never shared before, she told me things about her life here and now in New York that I was completely unaware of. She talked about my father’s death 30 years ago in way that was so fresh and new, my eyes filled with tears of love and admiration for her.

She spoke Italian everywhere, at first tentatively, then instinctively. I watched my mother charm every waiter and shopkeeper she came in quiet contact with; she smiled more than I have seen her smile in a long, long time. She slept well and ate well, and she gasped in delight at things I never would have noticed. It is these precious moments and memories that I will take with me from this trip, more so than any list of art I gazed at or meals I logged.

I wish you all the same; an unforgettable trip to Italy with a senior whom you love.

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