When planning a trip overseas, Valerie Grubb, MBA’01, realized that her mom’s physical and mental capabilities had suddenly changed. Her mom now needed a wheelchair, for example, and was afraid to travel alone (even on short flights to meet her daughter for a long trip together). Grubb set out to find suggestions for handling these changes, and after much research, was struck by the lack of comprehensive information that shed light on the nuances of globetrotting with aging parents.
Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents Through Travel is the go-to guide for adult children—it combines Grubb’s wisdom from years of traveling with her own aging mother with sensible tips, checklists, and sample itineraries to help readers plan and enjoy a vacation with their parents.
Understand That Things Have Changed
In the sixth century BCE you might have been able to start a trip just by taking that first step out the door. Nowadays, though, if you want to realize your dreams of relaxation and rejuvenation, you’ll need to go beyond a single step and include military-precise planning—and infinite patience. Add to the mix an aging parent who either asks to come with you or is someone you wish to bring along and the planning process becomes much more complicated, because your parent’s needs and abilities will strongly influence where you go and what you do while on vacation.
Multiple surveys have proven the health impacts of taking time away from a stressful work environment. But studies indicate that retirees, too, benefit from vacations. If your first thought is “Vacation from what?” keep in mind that retirement can cause boredom, depression, disconnectedness, or a sense of life becoming “stale”—all feelings that can result from normal day-to-day routines, regardless of age or employment status.
A proper vacation, where we unplug and relax, is supposed to remove us from our normal routines so we can recharge our batteries. Clearly, anyone at any age can benefit from a good vacation. Depending on your parents’ physical and mental capabilities, however, they may need extra assistance in order to travel. And that is where you as the adult child come in. Fortunately, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Family vacations can be incredibly satisfying, because they enable multiple generations to connect (or reconnect) through unique and special travel experiences!
My First Solo Trip with Mom
When was the last time you spent two weeks on vacation with your parents? When I was younger, of course, I could count on my yearly trips with my parents to see Mickey Mouse in Florida and my grandparents in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Once I went to college, though, my choice in traveling companions changed, and I opted to travel almost exclusively with friends.
That changed in 1994. I had graduated from college with my engineering degree in 1990, and although I’d promised myself I would use my precious two weeks’ annual vacation to go somewhere exotic every year, four years had passed without a single trip. I was “too busy” and “way too important” (aren’t we all at that age?) to consider taking time away from the office for something as trivial as a vacation.
My then-supervisor at Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis brought me to my senses by informing me that no one wins prizes for turning in unused vacation time. He also pointed out that the company had survived for more than 175 years without me and would continue to survive while I was out of the office on vacation. After getting over the shock of this revelation, I decided to go for it and test his theory. Thinking “Why wait?” I booked my time out of the office for one month out and planned a trip to Italy, which had always been at the top of my list.
Unfortunately, none of my friends could get vacation time approved on such short notice. Nervous to travel by myself, I had the crazy idea to ask my mom if she was interested in going with me. I call it “crazy” because as adults none of my friends or I had ever traveled anywhere alone with a parent. In fact, the thought of doing so hadn’t even crossed any of our minds!
Although since graduation and moving out on my own, I’d been more interested in establishing my independence than in traveling with either of my parents, in 1994 I was too much of a wimp to go to a foreign country by myself. My brother was long gone from the house, and my dad was a pilot whose work took him away from home much of the time. That left my mom as the only readily available traveling companion.
I was racked with anxiety at the thought of traveling with Mom. Since I had moved out on my own, we had never spent more than a weekend together. Spending 10 days together in a foreign country sounded as crazy to me as taking time off from work. At the same time, though, I wanted someone to go with me. So, I bit the bullet and invited her—and she said yes. At the time Mom (then 64) had one requirement for coming along: pre-booked hotel rooms in Rome, Florence, and Venice (she was okay with figuring out everything else on the fly). Although I was originally miffed about having to book rooms ahead of time (rather than wing it—my preferred option, which Mom wasn’t comfortable with), after the trip I realized that the pre-booking was the best decision we had made, because during the trip I had enough adjustments to make to Mom’s style (and vice versa, I’m sure!) without also having to worry about where to lay our heads each night.
During that first trip, I found out that Mom requires a minimum of an hour and 15 minutes to eat any meal (including snacks or coffee and dessert), that she cannot skip meals (something I frequently did), and that she must have eggs for breakfast (a meal I typically skipped). On our last morning in Venice, we got into a huge fight because after sleeping late we couldn’t find a place that was still serving eggs. After we had been searching for almost an hour, Mom started crying because she was upset at me (for being mad at her) and fatigued (because I had run her hard up to that point). I remember being so angry at her inability to compromise—and at my inability to find a restaurant that served eggs. As I leaned against a post to take some deep breaths, I noticed that the restaurant two storefronts down had a sign advertising quiche, even though they’d told me they weren’t serving eggs when I asked a few minutes earlier. The server at the door was surprised and delighted to see us return to his restaurant, and in true Italian fashion he couldn’t help but be charming to two women traveling by themselves.
After lunch (and a few glasses of wine), I asked the waiter if he knew that quiche was made with eggs. His surprised “No!” seemed genuine, and in fact he insisted on verifying this with the chef (and owner), who set him straight. He then sat down with us for an additional glass (or two) of wine. Although our lunch wasn’t the fanciest meal we had in Italy, it was the most hard won—and one that established a baseline for our travels ever since! Twenty years later, our trip to Italy remains one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. For the first time in my life I saw my mom as a person, not as a tormenter who existed solely to question my choice in both men and lipsticks. Our travels together these last two decades have increased my respect for her and strengthened the overwhelming love I have for this person who has become a friend in addition to being my parent. Mom still doesn’t like my lipstick choices (though at least she’s pretty much fine with any man I introduce her to now), but travel has brought us together in a way that no number of phone calls could ever equal.
Things Have Changed—and Are Still Changing
Jetting to Italy was the first long-haul trip for both Mom and me and the first one we did together. Since that first trip we’ve shared many adventures both inside the U.S. and in such faraway destinations as China, Cambodia, Thailand, France, England, and Australia (to name a few). In the 20+ years we’ve been traveling together, perhaps the greatest difference between when we started and where we are now is how much Mom’s tolerance for things outside her routine has decreased (even though she says she loves to travel around the world). Yes, I’ve found eggs for breakfast in every location we’ve visited, and I always factor in plenty of time for meals without annoyance. But I’ve found that as she’s aged, she’s become less tolerant of cultural differences.
Many studies indicate that people become less adaptable to change as they get older. When you’re traveling, particularly to a foreign country, the differences can be more jarring—and that can cause angst to Mom (which then ripples my way). As someone who lives alone, Mom has also gotten used to extreme quiet. So when we visited my brother and his family when they lived in China, between his twin toddler girls and toys that constantly made noise (thank you, Thomas the Tank Engine!), Mom was a bundle of nerves ready to jump out the window.
Mom’s stress causes her to get angry, upset, and short with me, too. Over time, I’ve learned not to take this personally, though. I’m ready for it and do my best to make light of the situation to help her calm down and handle all the change going on around her. I’ve found this approach (and attitude) to be the difference between a disaster and a good time—and it also prevents me from going out the window myself!
In addition to the psychological factors you need to be prepared for while traveling, physical issues may also affect your vacation. If your parent is still physically active and can easily get around, you won’t need to worry about this. But if your parent needs more assistance, you may have to shift away from your usual role as the child in this relationship and become the caregiver and problem solver. The effect of this change on your psyche can be not only profound but surreal—and is further compounded when a parent strongly resists this shift. (I’ve experienced this myself: Mom doesn’t want to miss anything when we’re on a trip, yet there are plenty of activities that I can do that are beyond her physical abilities.)
It’s a careful balancing act: adopting the decision-making role while not assuming the parent role. Be careful not to treat your parents like children when planning a vacation, and especially once you’re on vacation, because doing so can destroy any chance of enjoying this time together. They deserve your respect for their parenthood status, and treating them any differently (even if you’re making all the decisions) is a recipe for disaster.
Your Parents’ Input Matters, Even if You’re the One Footing the Bill
Remember, it’s your parents’ vacation too, so your preferences aren’t the only ones that count. And in addition to the physical and mental changes that may have occurred in your parents, there may also be financial shifts in the relationship you have with them. Chances are that when you were younger, they planned and paid for family vacations. That dynamic can shift once your parents retire and have fixed incomes. This is definitely something you need to be aware of when surveying the landscape for potential destinations.
Through experience, I’ve found that the need to modify my approaches and expectations—and the need to compromise (and maybe not get exactly what I want)—varies, depending on the makeup of my travel party. I treat my solo vacation time as an opportunity to be completely self-absorbed and do only what I want to do. When I travel with other people, I shift my expectations to include their input as well. And when I travel with Mom, I adjust my outlook even more—and therein lies the potential for conflict.
When I’m traveling with friends, I’m fine with them chiming in on where to eat and what to do throughout the day. Interestingly, I don’t always give the same respect to Mom’s input. At times, for example, I feel like she’s imposing, and I think (sometimes emphatically), “We should do what I want to do, especially since I’m the one who’s paying.” Her input sometimes strikes me as an intrusion on the great vacation I’ve planned. Through our thousands of miles together, though, I’ve come to realize that there is something in the parent-child relationship that inherently creates conflict, and my mentality of “I’m an adult now and don’t need my parents’ input anymore” can still shape that relationship even when I’m all grown up.
When those feelings arise, I have to remind myself that vacation with Mom is not just about me; instead, it’s something we’re sharing together (and by the way, I need to check my attitude). I owe it to her to ensure that she’s comfortable and happy when we’re traveling together—and that I’m not suffocating her into submission. Her input matters. If it doesn’t, then I shouldn’t take her on vacation with me at all.
Like your parents, you, too, may find it difficult to accept that they may no longer be able to do everything they used to on past vacations. After all, who likes to think of our parents (and subsequently ourselves) aging? So when you are considering traveling with your parent, it’s best to discuss potential trip activities before you start to look at locales. Understand that what they enjoyed doing in the past may not be possible for them today (whether or not they admit it).
During a recent trip to Sydney, for example, Mom wanted to explore the city’s famous opera house. But the usual tour—an arduous affair involving over 200 steps—was more than she could manage. By planning well in advance of our trip, I learned about, and reserved, a limited-mobility tour of the opera house. It allowed her to achieve her goal of exploring the building even while in a wheelchair and offered an even better behind-the-scenes peek than the regular tour, since we got to take the cast and crew elevators!
Not all activities worked out so great on that trip. Mom was determined to do the 1332-step climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, even though she struggles with the 10 stairs in her home. She couldn’t accept the fact that she would not be able to do it. (It also didn’t help that some random stranger at a restaurant where we ate lunch told her to “go for it!” and not let her children tell her what to do.) Even if it had been just the two of us, I’m confident Mom could not have done it, even if we could have taken our time and moved at her pace. But the climb is done in a group of 12 people who are tethered together, so Mom’s physical limitations would have affected more than just our immediate family. Alas, I had to be the bad guy and cancel her participation. She was upset with me, but I wisely bought a video that showed the whole climb so she could see there was no way she could have done it. Only then did she calm down—although I think it took her another 24 hours to stop being mad at me for being the Fun Police.
If you’re not sure of your parents’ activity level, I strongly suggest taking a stroll with them, even if it’s around the mall, to garner firsthand knowledge of their abilities and pace—something that is as critical. Knowing this information well before you head out on vacation will give you time to recalibrate your expectations and figure out activities that work best for your parents. By thoroughly understanding your starting point, you can investigate all the possible options, thus shifting the question from “What can’t my parents do?” to “What can my parents do with me comfortably and safely?” (You may find that figuring out ways to help them get around easier does the trick. For example, I’ve rented wheelchairs, golf carts, and private cars to help move us around as quickly and efficiently as possible.)
Recalibrating your expectations about what can be accomplished will do much to ensure that everyone enjoys the vacation. You may be able to skip through the Roman Coliseum after rolling through the Sistine Chapel and climbing the Spanish Steps, for example, but don’t expect your parent to have the same energy level. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to take in one major site and then have a rest period. Breaking up physical activities with a casual meal (something that can take hours in Italy’s capital and many other places) gives you a chance to talk about what you and your parent saw and to deepen your shared appreciation of the moment. And partaking in the traditional pastime in Italy—or France, or wherever—of eating ridiculously slowly and chatting up everyone will give you a new perspective on how the locals live, which is something you’d miss entirely on a typical whirlwind schedule!
The key here is to remember that on a trip your parents might need some extra time (and patience) to handle the increase in physical activity. Remember, though, that slowing down can benefit you as well. How many times have you come home even more exhausted after going full-tilt throughout a jam-packed vacation? Being more relaxed about time will help you enjoy your travels more—and experience less stress.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, check out our Q&A with Valerie Grubb or purchase her book.