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Traveling Abroad with Elderly Parents

Travel with a Senior Parent at Uxmal, Mexico
Author traveling with her mother at Uxmal in the Yucatán, Mexico.

Parents, like the rest of us, often act differently while on vacation. Traveling with one or both parents during their Golden Years can be a rewarding way to see a different side of them and to re-connect. It is also a good way to spend time together while also indulging your travel bug. Maybe you have traveled with your parents many times, but never traveled abroad with them. Maybe you have not traveled with them since childhood. Maybe this is the first trip you have ever taken together. Whether this is your first time traveling with an elderly parent, or your tenth, paying attention to the special needs of elderly travelers can help the trip go more smoothly. Pre-departure preparation can pay off. Here are some tips that sprang from recent travels in the Yucatan with my 79-year-old diabetic mother.

Choose Your Destination and Type of Trip Carefully

With an elderly parent, you may want to leave the backpack at home (unless you have one of those rare parents who run marathons into her nineties). Once you have come to terms with this fact, you can move to the next step: deciding what kind of travel you would like to do. It is no sin to choose a tour—it is sometimes the easiest way to navigate a country in which you do not speak the language, especially with a travel companion whose needs may be different from your own. Unfortunately, package tours do not provide much local flavor, and can also be strenuous (early morning wake up calls, lots of sites packed into one day, etc.) One way to stay independent is to mix things up by booking your hotels separately from other travel logistics. This takes planning. Having a wish list of sites and cities that you would like to visit helps. Once there, you can choose from local tours or local guides, who can be just as knowledgeable as those provided by tour companies. Such planning still leaves you with the option of going it alone when you feel like it.

The age, mobility, and health status of your elderly traveling partner might also impact which country you visit, and during what time of year. Climate extremes can exact heavier tolls on us as we age, so visiting a jungle during the hottest, rainiest season may not be the best idea. Likewise, journeying to Russia during the dead of winter may not be the wisest choice. Another consideration is that as people age, so do their immune systems, so this may be an important consideration while choosing which country to visit. You may still choose those countries with a plethora of endemic infectious diseases (e.g. India), but it is helpful to do so in the full knowledge of the possible effects on your elderly travel partner.  

Travel with a Senior Parent at Uxmal, Mexico
Mayan Dancers, Sunday in Merida.

Reserve Lodging in Advance

If you are the type of person who prefers to wait until arrival to find your hotel, you might want to adjust your routine. Booking a hotel in advance can help decrease the overall stress of the trip. Keep in mind that seniors, even when in the best of shape, may have limited mobility compared to younger travelers. Booking a hotel in advance avoids rushing around in an unknown city with an elderly travel partner whose exercise tolerance may be different from your own. Going straight from the airport to your lodging allows you both to rest after the flight, which can be a huge relief.

Seniors sometimes take longer to recover from air travel and to adjust to changes in time zones, so it is often helpful to schedule relaxing one or two nights in a hotel at your arrival destination to recover from the flight. At the end of the trip, it is also a good idea to schedule a few nights of rest and relaxation in a central location before heading home. This is just as much for you as for your elderly companion. If you functioned as the tour director and coordinator, you might need this R&R before heading back to busy schedules at home.

Dropping extra cash to stay at a safe, clean hotel close to the main attractions can also make a big difference in the enjoyment of your trip. Likewise, booking separate rooms can help insure a restful night for you both, which pays off big the next day (well rested travelers are less cranky travelers). 

Budget Considerations 

Budgeting extra money for conveniences in which you might not normally indulge is also important. For example, public transportation can be difficult for many seniors to access. Subway stairs can be tough on aged knees and hips. Waiting for buses in the hot sun (or cold wind) can exact a heavier toll on seniors than on younger travelers. Paying extra money for a cab ride can make you both happier. If you plan on visiting more than one city, renting a car can be easier on your elderly travel companion than taking local transport. Keep in mind, though, that you may end up being the driver, navigator, and porter. So be prepared for this added stress, as well as that of driving in a foreign country. 

If you are the type of person who saves money by eating one meal a day, keep in mind that this routine might not be so easy for an elderly parent. Budgeting money for regular meals at reputable restaurants (which could mean foregoing street food) will keep you both healthy and happy.  

Spending money on tourist guides, who know the terrain better than you, can minimize the risk of getting lost, as well as the added exertion and stress this can cause. Local guides can also be a fountain of regional knowledge, as well as a social outlet. Let’s face it, two people traveling together eventually run out of things to say. A local guide can provide welcome comic relief. 

Health Issues

Before you go, make sure that you both visit the doctor. Depending on where you plan to travel, you may need vaccinations or other prophylactic measures, such as an immunoglobulin shot. If your parent has any health conditions, your doctor can provide advice on how to stay healthy during the trip. Your doctor will also be able to prescribe medications: antimalarials or other antibiotics that may be needed should either of you become sick. 

Remember to pack your own over-the-counter first aid and health items: hand wipes or hand sanitizers, Tylenol or aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, stool softeners for constipation, sleep aids, band aids and alcohol wipes (especially if you are traveling in a tropical climate). If you or your elderly travel companion takes prescription medication, remember to pack it in your carry on and not in your checked bag. With the medications in hand there is no risk of missed doses if your bags get lost or the flight is delayed. If your parent is diabetic, be prepared to plan your trip around meal times in order to avoid low blood sugar levels. When site seeing, make sure you bring snacks and water with you in case of a dip in blood sugar.

Adjust Your Expectations and Slow Down

If you are the type of person who whizzes around a city and sees 10 sites in a single day, you may have to ratchet down your expectations as well as your energy level. Elderly travelers usually do not move as fast as younger ones. Planning to visit one or (at most) two sites per day is more realistic. Adjusting your expectations can help avoid frustration. 

There are some advantages to going at a slower pace. How many times have you returned from those whirlwind vacations feeling exhausted and in need of another vacation? Going more slowly can help you relax and make the trip less stressful. Spending more time in one place also often allows you to better appreciate the destination, the aesthetics, and the atmosphere. So you did not get to the Tuileries before closing. But you stood before the Mona Lisa for a half an hour, rather than rushing past like you normally might. 

Likewise, lingering over meals in many countries is not just for the elderly—it is part of the culture. So do what the locals do: if your elderly companion wants to spend half the day eating, then it is an opportunity to get to know the gastronomy of the country, or to chat with the waiters and other diners. If your elderly companion wants a siesta in the middle of the day, it might be a good idea for you, too. Likewise, taking a break on a park bench is a great way to get to know local life. In Merída, my mother and I sat on a park bench and watched a wedding party gather. We witnessed the excited chatter of the party as they waited for the bride’s arrival, who showed up last and bravely walked into the church and toward her future. We would have missed the procession were it not for the fact that my mother needed to take a break on a bench near the church. 

Wedding in Merida, Mexico
Wedding in Merida.

So this might not be the trip in which you see everything on the tourist map. By slowing your pace to that of your elderly companion’s you might see even more than you would if you rushed around. 

Plan Time for Your Own Rest and Relaxation

Be aware that you might end up being the caretaker, the tour guide, the navigator, and the translator (if you speak the local language and your companion does not). This is especially true if you have traveled more widely than your elderly parent. All this can boil down to a world of worry and stress. After all, you do not want anything to happen to your beloved companion, and you certainly do not want to feel to blame for it. If you do not want to be a nervous wreck by the end of the trip, be sure to schedule time for yourself. Whether it is a few hours wandering in the souk, or half a day on the beach, everyone needs time to unwind, including you. Scheduling such time allows you and your companion to have space away from each other. We all need our space, even in the best of parent-child relationships. Realizing that and requesting it before frustration builds can be the salvation of a trip, and make it more enjoyable for both of you.

A Final Word

While planning your trip you may discover other, more individualized considerations. These depend on your chosen destination, length of trip, time of year, personal parent-child relationship, and the medical or physical limitations of your elderly parent. Taking time before the trip to think about specific considerations and to talk about them with your traveling companion can help you prepare for the unexpected. A little preparation can help make the trip a cherished memory for you both.