Growing up, I remember Dad waiting patiently for me as I was learning to walk. He never walked far enough ahead so I felt like I was behind and he never made me feel like I was holding him back. Then we grow up and things are on an even pace between us and our parents. Then one day, things change. Our parents reach a point where they need more time and suddenly we get annoyed that they’re holding us back. We seem to forget the patience our parents showed us as we were growing up.
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Recalibrating your expectations about what can be accomplished when traveling with your parents 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.
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! By recalibrating my expectations, we were both able to partake in a fabulous tour!
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.)
A good rule of thumb is to take in one major sight, 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!
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, plan on slowing down when you travel and taking more time to enjoy the sites.
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.