I had a gentleman reach out via the Travel with Aging Parents Facebook page and ask me how to prepare for the emotional baggage that seems to accompany him when he travels with his parents. Troy is gearing up for a guy’s trip with Dad over Memorial weekend and “letting go of emotional baggage can be tough.”
First Troy let me just say that I get it. No, let me say that again “I GET IT!” Even after traveling 350,000+ miles with Mom, I’m still a little girl of 6 who Mom is going to tell what to do all the time. I’ve told the story many times, but one of our major fights was when I came out of the bedroom and Mom said “Are you going to where that lipstick to dinner?” My retort: “OF COURSE I AM MOM – IT’S ON MY LIPS!!”
Amazing how a friend could have said the same thing and I would be fine, but when it comes from a parent, it’s loaded with seeming judgment (and resentment on my part) from long ago. I tackled this topic in a previous blog post Troy, so I suggest starting there on how to let go of your emotional baggage.
Now, lest you think that you’re the only one bringing baggage to the party, don’t fret: your Dad surely has his own issues, especially if he can’t do all the things he used to be able to do. As you get older, you probably get annoyed to find your body hurting in new places each year (I sure do!). Now try to see things from your parent’s point of view. Imagine being excited to go on vacation and then realizing once you’re there that you can’t keep up. How frustrating would that be? This feeling is “excruciating,” according to my mother, and it can cause her serious angst about vacationing with my brother and me if we let her stew on it (which we do not). We remind her that we want her along and that we’re having a great time with her! (Do the same with your Dad.)
Here’s one poignant example: a few years ago, Mom used a wheelchair for the first time. I had made arrangements for it without telling her—and she was not happy about it.
Val: What did you think when the Delta Airlines rep showed up with a wheelchair in Indianapolis Airport to wheel you to the gate when we were flying to China?
Mom: I was actually mad, and I couldn’t believe you would do that without asking me first.
Val: If I had asked you, you would have said no.
Mom: Exactly! A wheelchair is for old people!
To my mom, wheelchair users are “old”—and who wants to admit to being that? Later, it became clear to me that her pride had been hurt: she didn’t want to be seen as someone who couldn’t make it on her own. (She still feels that way 10 years later!)
I’ve learned from my experiences with Mom that a parent’s reluctance to use a wheelchair is a very personal matter and one that you may have to address while on vacation together. The decision whether to use a wheelchair is a very personal one (and usually comes with plenty of emotional baggage), so I encourage you not to push your aging parent if he or she isn’t ready to take this step.
If you think that your parents’ mobility may be an issue during your trip, here are a few suggestions for tackling such a prickly topic with them:
- Review the list of possible trip activities with your parents, noting the physical activity level of each item. Get their input and pay particular attention to what excites them the most. If they’re interested in an activity that’s a stretch for their physical abilities, make arrangements to rent a wheelchair at that site. Once you arrive, mention to your parents that if they become fatigued, you can rent a wheelchair so they can get around easier and not miss anything.
I used this approach the first time I rented a wheelchair for Mom at an attraction. I didn’t mention her inability to keep up (and thus embarrass her), but I did say that I didn’t want her to miss anything! She met this suggestion with resounding enthusiasm, because she hates the idea of missing something good even more than the thought of being in a wheelchair.
- Rent a wheelchair ahead of time and have it waiting in your hotel room when you arrive. This way, if your parent decides to use it, it’s already there and readily available (and not something you have to try to arrange at the last minute).
- If possible, rent an electric wheelchair rather than a push-from-behind model. It’s like a car! And it gives your parents the freedom to go where they want without assistance. These chairs can go fast, though, be prepared to jump out the way quickly (or get hurt)!
Every time we’ve rented an electric wheelchair for her, Mom has accidentally run into me from behind.
She’s a speed demon in her car, and that attitude certainly carries over when she’s driving an electric wheelchair. The last time we were at Disney World, the staff there warned her several times to slow down. I was oddly proud of her for this—right up until she rammed me!
- Which member of your family does your parent listen to the best? People are often more receptive to feedback and requests from certain family members—and often unable even to consider suggestions from others. So if you want to encourage your parent to take a particular course of action, choose the messenger wisely!
This is definitely true in my family, and my brother and I use this knowledge as our secret weapon: if Mom refuses to do something (in the “we both know it’s best for her, but she’s being stubborn about it” category) that I’ve asked her to do, I ask my brother to step in, and invariably she’ll listens to him. I’m not necessarily happy about this situation, but through the years I’ve lightened up a bit and learned to accept it as one of those “that’s how it is” things. And ultimately, getting her to fulfill my request is more important than trying to avoid bruising my ego by getting my brother’s help.
- When broaching the subject of using a wheelchair, do so privately. Don’t put your parents on the spot in front of everyone and make a big (and public) deal about the fact that they cannot keep up.
- If your parent starts to falter while you’re out and about, just go get a wheelchair, bring it to where he or she is sitting, and mention something exciting that’s just around the corner: “Grab on, and let’s go for a ride! “ If you make using a wheelchair something fun (instead of something that seems punitive), your parent may be more likely to give it a try.
- Most importantly, respect your parents’ wishes. If they truly do not want to be in a wheelchair, don’t force them to use one. They’ll get there at some point—just perhaps not this trip. Until then, consider finding a nice spot for them to sit and people-watch while the rest of you explore a site.
My mom’s interest in tourist attractions varies (she’s so not into looking at temples or other religious sites), but she still wants to come along. Fortunately, she’s as happy as a clam to hang out and people-watch on her own while the rest of us take our time checking out a site. This is really a great option—and one I deploy at least once during every vacation with Mom.
Here are a few more non–wheelchair–specific thoughts to keep in mind as you plan your trip:
- I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: avoid scheduling nonstop activities. Everyone (not just your parents) benefits from breaks and downtime during vacation.
- Plan the most physically strenuous activity for the time of day when your parents are at their peak energy levels.
- Contact the hotel before your trip and request the room closest to the elevator and the front entrance. There’s no reason for your parents to wear themselves out just going to the lobby!
- If you’re interested in activities beyond your parents’ capabilities, discuss with them how they would feel if you went off on your own for a couple of hours while they hung out by the hotel pool or did some other low-key activity by themselves. This way their vacation can continue even when you’re not there. Who knows—they might be happy to have some time to themselves!
When I’m off exploring on my own, Mom doesn’t stay cooped up her in room but lounges by the pool or goes for a stroll around the hotel. If she’s out for a walk and needs a break, she’ll hang out on a bench and watch the people go by (a favorite pastime of hers, especially in new cities).
- Your parents will have a better time if they don’t feel like they’re burdens because they can’t keep up. You’ve scheduled this time with them, so use it to relax and just hang out together. Find great restaurants, for example, and enjoy long delicious meals in each other’s company. You both will probably enjoy those shared experiences just as much (if not more) than spending time at the greatest of tourist sites!
These days, I prefer to travel light so I can avoid those annoying fees for checked luggage. If airlines could figure out a way to check my emotional baggage (and Mom’s), though, I’d happily pay for that convenience! Unfortunately, airlines don’t provide that service. So until they do, we all have to learn how to handle our emotional baggage ourselves. It’s not as difficult as it seems, though. Just pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself how lucky you are to be alive and going on a trip with your Dad.
Good luck Troy and please let us know how it goes!