INTERVIEW: Jeannette Franks, Gerontologist (Part 2)
Jeannette Franks has been working with aging populations for many years. Her approach emphasizes treating seniors with respect and compassion—and not underestimating their abilities. Yesterday she talked about attitudes about aging. Today she shares her thoughts about aging and travel!
(JF): Travel is stimulating, and it just adds to your general knowledge. But it can also be beautiful and fun! I like to try new stuff. Travel keeps life interesting and (I hope) adds to my knowledge of the world.
I’ve been traveling since I lived overseas as a teenager. I was in the Peace Corps, and my father was in the field service at Boeing. I view our planet as the most fascinating place on earth. You learn so much!
Before my husband and I travel, we do our homework about our destination. We read books, we watch movies, and we talk with our friends who have been there. For us, travel isn’t just about the fun and great food: we want to learn about the history and culture of the place we’re visiting.
[Val’s comment: when I interviewed Franks, she had just returned from three weeks in India with another couple. Needless to say, she had a great time!]
(VG): What are your experiences with travel with an aging parent?
(JF): As I wrote in the article you published about me traveling with my demented father, that trip was a lot more fun than anyone could have possibly imagined! It was a gift. It was wonderful to spend quality time with my father, even though he was frail and I was always terrified he was going to get lost when he insisted on going out on his own to visit old haunts from when he lived in New York. But this trip was so enjoyable for my partner, my father, and me. (I was especially glad not to have to spend time doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom—when you’re in a hotel, they do all that for you!)
He loved to travel, and he loved eating good food and going to great restaurants. This trip was a really good quality-of-life experience for him personally and for us as a family. I got the best of my father during that trip. It was really great.
(VG): What advice would you give an adult child dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer’s or other cognitive issues?
(JF): Travel writer Rick Steves used to travel extensively with his mother, and during an interview with The Washington Post, he shared that even after she developed Alzheimer’s, he would still take her everywhere. I agree with his attitude: don’t shut them up at home. So what if you go to a concert and your parent exclaims or shouts out at the wrong time?
Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t shut them up. Just enjoy your aging parents for who they are now and for the things they’ve always enjoyed. Let them continue to participate in things they’ve always enjoyed. Don’t change that dynamic because they’ve acquired a disability. It’s important to deal with a parent’s functional and cognitive disabilities as part of the normal range of human experience. That’s to be celebrated that they made it this far not locked away!
It’s important to honor your parents’ preferences, even if you disagree with them and even if they change. Look, we’re all entitled to make choices—even bad choices. That’s no different at any age. People with dementia still know what they like. It’s important to honor people’s choices— being inclusive is good. Keep them involved and part of family activities—be that church, social gatherings, holidays, special events, or whatever. Keep them involved. Keep them part of the family.
(VG): Any advice for seniors traveling or adult children traveling with their elderly parents?
(JF): It’s very doable!
Are there destinations or settings that work especially well? I do think that traveling with small group is best—such as trips through Road Scholar’s small group programs (with no more than 24 participants), Overseas Adventure Travel (maximum group size 16), or Rick Steves’ Europe (limited to 28 people).
These smaller tours typically take a leisurely pace that lets you spend three or four nights in one place, giving you a chance to really get to know a city. Optional excursions allow you to take naps as needed and really explore at your own place.
I also recommend avoiding places with unsafe drinking water. Of course, that’s not an absolute: if you can easily find clean water during your trip (say, by drinking bottled water or using a water filter), the local tap water isn’t as much of an issue. But if you think finding drinkable water might be a problem, consider looking at other destinations. You don’t want to run the risk of getting really, really sick or dehydrated when you travel. Dehydration can be a serious problem for older adults, so be careful.
That said, if you think you can do it, go for it! I recently took a trip to Africa with Overseas Adventure Travel, and one woman in my group was in her 90s. It was a physically challenging trip, and she just had a blast! So telling an aging adult, “Don’t go anywhere where there is compromised water” is not the best approach. Each traveler has to be cognizant of the challenges in the destination country, then weigh the pros and cons based on his or her own physical capacity.
Jeannette Franks has more to say! Tune in tomorrow for the final part of the interview with her!