After his father's death in 1985, my husband, Jack, invited his mother, Martha, along on a trip every year or so.
Martha was in her early 70s at the time, and into her mid-70s she had amazing stamina, happily negotiating slick cobblestones in ancient European cities, or the treacherous ice of Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies.
But by her late 70s, the shroud of Alzheimer's disease began to cloud her mind. On her last trip with Jack, a Mississippi River cruise aboard the Delta Queen in 1993, she remained a cheerful traveler. But Jack had to take care of more details, such as helping her unpack, showing her how the shower worked and escorting her at all times.
It wasn't easy for him, but the effort was worth it. Far into her illness before her death from cancer in 1997, when even an hourlong excursion from the nursing home had become impossible, Martha would smile happily at photographs of herself and Jack boarding a cruise ship or hiking on the slippery glacier.
Like Jack, many Americans in their 50s and 60s have aging parents who are willing and able to travel with them, sometimes for the first time since childhood. Travel with older parents is good for both generations, according to research at Harvard and Tufts universities. It provides mental stimulation and exercise that contribute to psychological and physical health.
But destinations and types of trips must be carefully chosen to accommodate special needs the aging parent might have.
Your 78-year-old father may be able to climb a steep mountain trail with ease, yet be uncomfortable in noisy restaurants or hotel lobbies because of peripheral sounds amplified by his hearing aids. Your 85-year-old mother may be able to identify bird species by their calls, but find walking difficult because of arthritis.
So when planning a trip, many factors must be taken into account, such as your parents' level of stamina and mobility, their ability to deal with the details of travel and their special interests.
If your parent exercises regularly and prefers an active vacation, you'll find walking, bicycling, snowmobiling, canoeing, river rafting and other outdoor trips specifically designed for older travelers.
But if mobility problems exist, you'll need to allow additional time between connecting flights and may need to arrange for wheelchair or other transportation between gates. You may want to avoid destinations known for cobblestone streets and hilly terrain, unless you can get around in a car or taxi. Choose lodgings near sights, shopping and restaurants so it's easy for a parent to return for a rest. Reserve rooms near the lobby or elevator. Also consider renting an apartment or condominium with a kitchen, particularly if you or your parent awakens early.
High altitudes and air pollution can worsen some medical conditions, so if you're thinking of a trip to the Colorado Rockies or Mexico City, check with your parents' doctor. If you or your parent requires a special diet, choose a tour operator, cruise line or hotel that can accommodate it.
If joining a group tour, pick one that is slow-paced. More tours than ever stay several nights at each stop, then fan out into the city or countryside with optional tours that provide a more flexible schedule. Special-interest trips range from tours focusing on art or gardens to places where your family has roots. Other packages include extended stays of a week or more in one location, again with optional side trips and tours.
Cruising means you'll unpack only once. Make sure the optional shore excursions won't tax your parents' stamina. River cruises may be your best bet, because you can usually sightsee from the deck.
Recreational vehicles may prove a comfortable way to travel. They can be adapted to include such conveniences as a roll-in shower and grip bars by the bed. Parents with special needs can enjoy the outdoors and meeting other campers without having to worry about finding accessible lodgings and restaurants.
If a parent has sight or hearing problems, you'll need to find restaurants or diners that are relatively quiet or brightly lit, or ask for such seating when making reservations.
Trip interruption insurance might be a wise investment in case a last-minute medical or other emergency prevents you from going or cuts short your trip. No one is covered by Medicare overseas, so medical insurance might be a good idea.
Carry items that can make the trip more comfortable, especially on long flights. These might include a U-shaped blowup pillow that prevents a stiff neck from sleeping while sitting up, and saline nasal spray to keep sinuses from drying out. You also might pack sandwiches or healthy snacks in case meals are delayed. Advise parents not to wear tight shoes or socks that may reduce circulation, and to move around regularly or flex muscles while seated.
Traveling with an aging parent can create closer bonds and lifelong memories, and planning for their special needs will smooth the way.