The Perils and Pleasures of a Trip With Mom and Dad
The American Hospital in Paris was not on our itinerary.
But there we were in its emergency room recently: my 76-year-old father, my 74-year-old mother and my 45-year-old self. After a fun week tramping around London and only one night in France, my father developed a nasty diabetes-related foot infection. The wonderful Parisian doctors prescribed wound dressings and antibiotics that helped a lot. After a few scary hours, we resumed our trip--with more rest stops than we had planned.
A medical emergency like that had been one of my fears about accompanying my elderly parents to Europe in May. I also wondered whether varying interests and stamina might trigger family disputes during 11 days of unbroken togetherness. Still, I pushed those concerns aside and booked the trip--my mother’s first visit to Europe, my father’s first since his days as a GI there in World War II. They kept procrastinating until I, with more travel experiences, volunteered to be their guide in Britain and France.
Turns out the arrangement was not unusual. Travel experts report increasing bookings for senior citizens and their middle-age children on trips together. Some are taking easy cruises down to Baja to celebrate golden wedding anniversaries. Others are ambitiously exploring family roots in Italy, Ireland, Africa and China.
“It is a big market,” Ann Halsey-Smith, owner of Halsey Tours and Cruises in La Jolla, said of such intergenerational travel. She attributed the increase to the good economy and to boomers’ growing sense of a family’s importance as their parents age.
Barbara Stein, a senior agent at Post Haste Travel in Hollywood, Fla., not only agrees that the trend is up, but also participates in it. In recent years, she has taken her mother, now 81, to India and Bali. “In the ‘90s people are much more comfortable traveling with their parents. There is no stigma in it,” she explained.
But other experts caution that such travel requires extra planning and more diplomacy than a family dinner. Here is some of their advice, mixed in with my own lessons learned during a gratifying trip:
* Purchase insurance for overseas medical care, evacuation and trip cancellation or interruption. We did not do that, which was a mistake. My parents’ HMO supposedly will reimburse them for $300 in Parisian medical care that they paid with cash easily drawn from ATMs using a Visa card. But they are still awaiting the HMO’s check two months later.
The smoothest way to buy coverage is through travel agents, although it can be obtained directly through insurance firms. Premiums are based on the bookings’ cost, the traveler’s age and length of stay.
For example, CSA Travel Protection, (800) 348-9505, charges $59 for a month of coverage for a person 55 or younger on a $2,000 package of flights and hotels; a person 71 or older on a month’s trip costing more than $5,000 would pay $285 in premiums. Each package includes coverage for prepaid, nonrefundable bookings, $10,000 in medical care plus the cost of evacuation if necessary. There is a $50 deductible for outpatient care.
* Be aware that togetherness can cause tension in close quarters and distant lands. Everyday habits, especially over meals or money, can annoy both sides of the generation gap. “You do not have to be together 24 hours of the day,” said Gail Goceljak of Preferred Travel in Las Vegas. “Be together when you are doing things you enjoy together, and also have time to do exactly what you want to do.”
Separate visits to friends in London provided my parents and me some breathing space, as did my solo jaunts to bookstores and coffee shops. Plus, we compromised a lot: I chose a play for us to see in London, and I deferred to their better knowledge about French food. Yet despite best intentions, I lost my temper a few times when anyone complained about the long lines at the Louvre or the London subway breakdowns.
* Choose cruise ships, hotels and apartments with room to spread out. Our three-room apartment in London was ideal for that. The kitchenette, complete with fridge and microwave, made us more flexible about meals and snacks. I wish, however, that we had packed a nonslip shower mat, since using a high-sided tub can be awkward for older people.
* Don’t overdo it. Take taxis if traffic and wallets allow. Two activities a day may be enough if extensive walking is involved. My folks are fairly hardy, but the stairways in the London and Paris subways and museums proved to be a challenge, especially after my father’s foot injury. Yet by pushing them to weariness a few times, we met charming people and visited neighborhoods that my father remembered 53 years after his Army days.
* Be sure to plan transfers and airport connections. And keep a limit on lifting luggage yourself. Our London arrival was smoothly door-to-door, with the help of bellhops. Unfortunately, I had been warned about Parisian cabbies who supposedly gouge Americans at the airport. So we dragged our bags onto a shuttle bus, unloaded them ourselves at a sidewalk station and then had to find a taxi for a ride to the hotel, where we struggled with the bags into a tiny elevator. I should have just grabbed an airport taxi.
* Finally, don’t wait too long if you are considering such a trip. My parents wish they had done this when they were a little younger, but they are very glad they didn’t delay any more.