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I’ve received several questions on the Travel with Aging Parents Facebook page which I’ll be addressing over the next couple of blogs. One question came from MarshaB – she wasn’t sure how/where to start when planning a trip with her mother who is around my mom’s age (early 80’s) and somewhat limited mobility. Here are a few thoughts Marsha – let me know if it’s helpful (and good luck!).

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 really likes to think of our parents (and subsequently ourselves) aging? The challenge, then, is to discuss potential trip activities with your parents while understanding that what they enjoyed doing in the past may not be possible for them today. Even something as simple as strolling on the beach can be more difficult if your parent now walks with a cane or is wheelchair-bound.

That said, soliciting your parent’s input can go a long way toward making him or her feel included in the planning process and building excitement for the trip. Ask your parent what he or she likes to do and consider those interests in the location selection process. Remember, it’s your parent’s vacation, too, so your preferences aren’t the only ones that count (even if you’re paying for the entire trip). For example perhaps your family are wine lovers, you could take your parents and yourself to Italy and enjoy some of the best wines in the world, using this guide to wine in Tuscany that activity is made a lot easier.

When broaching this topic with your parent, keep the purpose of the trip in mind. Do you both just want to relax and read books? Are either of you the type of traveler who wants to explore new places and experience different cultures? Do you want your vacation to include both relaxation and activity?


Interior of the Sydney Opera House.

Once you and your parent define your trip goals, your next step is to figure out which activities can help you meet them. If your parent’s goals exceed his or her physical limitations, there are services that can help your parent participate in even the more strenuous activities (more detail on these services in a later blog). My mother really wanted to explore the opera house in Sydney, for example, but the usual tour (an arduous affair involving over 200 steps) was more than she could manage. A limited-mobility tour offered once a day allowed her to participate in a wheelchair (and offered an even better behind-the-scenes peek, since we took the cast and crew elevators to explore the facility!).

Similarly, anyone who’s visited Disney World in Florida knows that people in wheelchairs (and their companions) access rides through the exits, thus bypassing massive lines at the entrances. In fact, my brother and I have commented many times that the magic ticket to exploring the Magic Kingdom is a wheelchair (although there is a bit of controversy surrounding this now as guests were hiring people with disabilities to take advantage of this feature). By investigating all possible options, you shift the question from “What can’t my parent do?” to “What can my parent do with me comfortably and safety?”

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, 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, 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 just saw and deepen your shared appreciation of the moment. And partaking in a classic Italian tradition of eating ridiculously slow 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!

Slowing down may 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 enjoy your travels more—and experience less stress.