I kicked off 2018 with a trip to Cambodia with my 90-year-old grandfather. Although I am certainly no travel doctor or gerontologist, I did learn numerous lessons about travelling with a senior that may be beneficial to others planning vacations with grandparents or elderly parents.
To start, let’s clarify the context: my grandfather is quite healthy, living with my grandmother in their quiet apartment in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver. While he enjoys walking, my grandfather prefers to avoid hills, and walk only for short periods of time. He has limited mobility in his knees and takes daily vitamins and medication. His vision and hearing aren’t as good as they were a decade ago, and he is used to taking regular naps and having early bedtimes. Nonetheless, my grandpa is curious, loves to learn, and wants to see as much as he can. Fortunately, Grandpa doesn’t have any dietary restrictions, but prioritizes his health by munching on as many fruits, vegetables, and nuts as possible. Since he grew up in rural China and spent most of his life in Taiwan, he speaks perfect Mandarin and has been learning English for his previous four decades.
On the other hand, I grew up in Coquitlam, British Columbia, where I wholeheartedly consider myself Canadian. Moving to Ontario for school meant that I spend only a few weeks per year with my grandparents. I am an organized, though spontaneous (and overly-inquisitive), explorer when it comes to travelling. I like to know exactly where I will eat, and which menu items I’ll order, but at the same time, like to leave room in my schedule for impromptu hikes and photo sessions.
There are countless reasons to travel with older adults you love, but the hassle often holds people back. Despite the logistical considerations to take into account, travelling with a grandparent or elderly parent is a rewarding, enriching experience. Many special memories were created during our trip to Cambodia, and I gained a valuable appreciation for my grandfather. Most importantly, the time that we spent together was a gift that I will cherish for a lifetime. Here are ten tips that I would offer to anyone travelling with an elderly loved one.
- When you have the opportunity to plan the destination for your vacation, find one that suits everyone’s needs. When my grandfather first asked where I’d like to go after our trip to Taiwan, I responded “Cambodia!” in a heartbeat. Looking back, while my experience in the Kingdom of Wonder was truly once-in-a-lifetime, my grandfather faced several challenges, from the bumpy tuktuk rides to the steep staircases in ancient temples. Perhaps it would’ve been equally memorable if I’d chosen a relaxing cruise, which is typically geared towards guests of all ages. Note: consider the terrain of the destination (ideally paved, flat, and even), especially if your companion has knee or hip issues. Additionally, try to stay in one city for at least four days. Grandpa and I spent four days in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, and this was just the right amount of time to visit the key tourist attractions, eat at all the restaurants I wanted to try, and spend some afternoons sipping coconut water by the hotel swimming pool. I also found it very valuable to involve my grandfather in the trip planning. As much as I wanted to climb mountains and wade in beaches spontaneously, it was better to hear his ideas and compromise. From my experience in hospitals and senior homes, I know that it is critical for older adults to retain independence; everyone should be actively involved in making decisions. In the end, I found that his priorities, which included time to relax in the hotel, shorter walks, and indoor seating in restaurants, contributed to a better, more restful, experience for myself.
- Find a hotel with lots of amenities. Since Grandpa often spent afternoons in the hotel while I checked out local attractions, I knew it was important for the hotel to have elevators, a lounge, swimming pool, or possibly a spa. One of my favourite memories from the trip was getting a traditional Khmer (Cambodian) massage in our Siem Reap hotel with my grandfather. Both of us were tired from exploring ancient temples in the early morning, so following his afternoon nap, I booked a couple’s massage room for us to experience a Cambodian spa treatment. Not only was this a refreshing change from the traditional massage, we had the opportunity to chat while stretching with the lovely therapists.
- Travel insurance is essential, regardless of the type of trip, particularly if your grandparent has medical conditions. We completed our travel insurance forms a month before the trip, though it could take even longer if travelers have pre-existing medical conditions. Bring extra prescriptions just in case. I am lucky because Grandpa has always been highly diligent about his medications. If not, however, I would set an alarm on my phone to keep dosages consistent. A few weeks before the trip, we also visited a travel doctor to fill up on travel medications and make sure we were up-to-date on vaccinations.
- Pre-plan for dietary restrictions. Each morning, Grandpa likes to have a few scoops of Fiber One and some sunflower seeds, so we made sure to pack enough of those necessities. For myself, I brought homemade muffins and a few peanut butter and chocolate LARABARS to snack on during the long plane rides. Though Grandpa is not picky, he definitely has food-related preferences. For instance, I learned that he adores fresh coconut water (less than forty cents in Cambodia!), hot soup, boneless fish, and vegetables. Eventually, we were able to figure out which restaurants provided tasty and customizable meals that would satisfy both of us.
- I learned that nighttime flights can be extremely draining, and are best to avoid. Travel during the right time of day. Seniors may lack the energy they use to have, so early-morning or midnight flights are exhausting. Grandpa and I found that mid-morning, or early-afternoon, departures were the least draining. I have terrible memories of travelling with my dad when I was little – he would insist on arriving at the airport five hours before the flight (I wish this was a joke), and I would sit around while he played games on his cellphone. As a result, I’ve always been very last-minute with airplane rides, normally arriving at the gate minutes before the final boarding call. Grandpa finally cured me of this terrible habit by suggesting we arrive 2.5 hours early to make sure we get through all the lines rush-free, and use the extra time to sit and have a nice meal.
- Like most, or maybe all, other parts of life, open communication was essential. I learned to warn Grandpa in advance if there were any long walks, and he often reminded me that he would prefer to take an elevator instead of the stairs. With good communication, no one will be offended if you want to go off on your own. Wherever I am, I like to have some alone time, and so does Grandpa. When I wanted to see the Kampong Trach caves, Grandpa was more than happy to watch TV at the hotel. Similarly, I was totally okay with him doing some morning aerobics while I slept in.
- Pack as lightly as possible, and count on doing laundry at the destination. We brought minimal clothing and travel-size everything, knowing that navigating the airport would not be fun with excessive and oversized baggage. Ideally, we’d pack carry-on only, so we wouldn’t have too much luggage to handle. Remind your loved one to bring comfortable shoes that are easy to remove and put back on. When we visited the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, the heels of both of Grandpa’s running shoes snapped off (yes, both – how does that even happen?). We were very lucky to find a shoe store nearby and fit him with a soft new pair of walking shoes. On a side note, printed maps may actually be helpful! In Cambodia, I was completely lost when Wi-Fi was nowhere to be found, so I was more happy than embarrassed that Grandpa packed an old-fashioned paper map (and was a master at using it).
- Three key words: pack activities sparingly. Create plans that allow for freedom and flexibility – you don’t have to do everything together as a group. Instead, try to look for destinations that allow both of you to pursue your own needs and interests, and then reunite for meals. I learned to be more patient and understanding, and rather than rushing Grandpa, I allotted more time to each activity. Essentially, after each round of sightseeing, there should be some time to slow down, eat, or relax to rejuvenate. This tip was especially challenging for me, because I always want to jam-pack each free moment to the second. I discovered that, for the most part, one activity before lunch, and one activity after lunch, is enough. A slower pace, I learned, does not mean that I experience less. Rather, spending more time on each activity resulted in a more fulfilling experience. Avoid a packed schedule to allow time for early bedtimes and potentially naps in the afternoon. My grandfather is accustomed to afternoon naps, so we made sure there was sufficient time on most days, for him to return to the hotel to sleep. For instance, a typical day in Cambodia looked like this:
- wake up naturally at around 8:00 AM
- go for a walk in nearby area (beach, market, etc.), and/or relax in the hotel
- walk or ride a tuktuk to a restaurant for brunch
- head back to the hotel to drop off Grandpa
- Grandpa watches TV, then takes a nap, while I go on a hike, explore caves, or visit temples
- go back to the hotel to relax with Grandpa, and make dinner plans
- walk or ride a tuktuk to a restaurant for dinner
- head back to the hotel to rest
- Hire drivers if the city does not have good public transportation. I wanted to visit Cambodia primarily to experience the breathtaking Angkor Archaeological Park, a series of impressive monuments that testify to an exceptional ancient civilization. Since Angkor was quite far from Siem Reap, the closest city, we hired tuktuk drivers for the entire day to take us from one region of the park to another. Likewise, airplane rides are tiring and stressful enough; it is often worthwhile to book a driver to help with luggage and pick you up from the airport, then drop you off at your hotel. During long car rides, such as the three-hour ride from Kep in southern Cambodia to the airport in Phnom Penh, I reminded myself to ask the driver to make frequent stops for us to use the restroom, and move around to avoid discomfort from the drive.
- Choose activities wisely. Consider museums carefully. While most museums are air-conditioned and chilly, with tile floors, the National Museum of Cambodia was bright and humid. Furthermore, there were many flights of rickety stairs. There are few things that both Grandpa and I enjoy doing, and eating is one of them. Supporting arts, history, and cultural heritage is another. While we were in Cambodia, I made it my goal to find hospitality training restaurants that benefit students in the long-term. For instance, we enjoyed flavourful, delicious Khmer meals at HAVEN in Siem Reap and Friends in Phnom Penh, both of which train street children and orphans to cook (and eventually gain employment) and fund their studies in the meantime. Comparably, our favourite centre, Daughters of Cambodia, rescues young girls from the sex trafficking industry by giving them shelter, physical and mental healthcare, and employment (cooking and baking in the café, massage therapy in the spa, sewing for the souvenir shop, and more). Grandpa loved learning about the great causes behind each of these organizations, and he was always happy to buy souvenirs from them.
Above all, enjoy the peaceful, uneventful moments. On my previous trips to France and Nepal, being a tourist came first, with volunteering coming in as a close second. In Cambodia, however, I learned more about my grandpa than I’d expected. Grandpa often shared stories about his youth in 1950s Taiwan – memories that were triggered by the sandy roads, whirring motorcycles, cheerful street vendors, and stray animals of Cambodia. Initially wary about speaking English to the smiling servers and shopkeepers of Cambodia, Grandpa became bolder and happier. He was so charming to everyone, enjoyed every meal, and laughed lots. He had sufficient sleep, and gasped in delight at tiny details: unique leaves or trucks or characters in the Khmer language. These hilarious, simple, and touching moments were truly unforgettable – even more than the temples I’d photographed or amok dishes I devoured.
If I am ever lucky enough have the opportunity to do so, I would not hesitate to travel with my grandfather again. I wish you all the same: a wonderful trip, full of precious memories, with a grandparent or elderly parent you love.