Discover more from Parent of Adults
11 tips for road tripping with elderly relatives
...and why I hope you travel with older family members.
Welcome to Parent of Adults, a newsletter for parents who wonder what’s beyond the empty nest. Subscribe! Let’s keep each other company as we stumble toward whatever’s next. 🤷🏽♀️
I recently returned from a two-week, mother-daughter road trip in which I was the daughter! That’s right, my travel partner was my Mom. I drove us from Portland, OR to Los Angeles and back, along the way visiting friends, family, and seeking out the wildflower superbloom that was decorating California hillsides and roadsides.
If you follow me on Instagram (especially my Stories), you’ve already seen a few snapshots, but I’m not great at documenting travel in real time. I admire people who can. But I can’t seem to step outside the experience to narrate it without falling into a phone vortex.
Now that I’ve been home a while, reconnected with Rael, done some laundry, and slept in my own bed, I can look back over the arc of our trip and pick out a few observations and aha! moments.
I was a different kind of grownup
After years of being “the mom” on family trips, I loved being “the kid.” That’s not to say I lolled around in the back seat eating Doritos. My Mom uses a walker and has vision problems, so I did the physical work of driving and handling luggage and I made many of the reservations and plans.
I was in a caretaking role, but it wasn’t like traveling with my kids because my Mom was a partner in the decision-making. She’s a veteran road tripper, having driven thousands of miles back and forth across the US with my Dad. In fact, she hated that she couldn’t travel the way she used to and resented having to accept so much help. (Don’t get me started on how our ageist culture causes many elderly folks to feel ashamed for growing old.)
But as the trip progressed, we relaxed into our respective grooves. The teamwork grew less awkward. Mom and I got to be adults together in a way we haven’t before. Her movement is limited but she’s as gregarious and curious as ever.
People were extra nice to us
In some ways, Mom’s age and physical limitations opened doors for us — literally. As soon as people noticed the walker, they went out of their way to be helpful.
People smiled and stopped to chat. There was a real tenderness in their eyes. A few talked wistfully about their own parents and how lucky we were to travel together.
Want to feel better about humanity? Travel with an elderly person.
Mom and I finally got to have fun
Our trip was fun. This, perhaps, was the most important thing of all.
Mom’s and my relationship has changed dramatically in the last three years. My Dad’s sudden, unexpected death in February 2020 followed weeks later by lockdown kicked off a grueling period of grief, isolation and fear for us both. Last Fall, Mom sold her home of almost 50 years and moved to a retirement community near me. The work and stress of it all ground us both to a halt and changed us in ways we’re still grappling with.
This trip allowed us to leave that all behind for a while. We laughed about ridiculous things. We gasped at beautiful views. Rather than doctor’s appointments and tax forms and computer hassles, we looked to the horizon.
We could be new selves together, and thankfully those selves have fewer hangups than the old ones. Our relationship hasn’t always been this relaxed. The last three years have sanded down the edges. There’s less to push against now, more to embrace.
I thought about my kids a lot. How I miss our vacations together and the background noise of their laughter and even their silent presence. This road trip reminded me that I’m my Mom’s kid, and she still misses me in the same way.
Our trip (like our relationship) wasn’t all sweetness and light; there were boring and annoying parts. I lost my temper, so did Mom. But those episodes are already fading, and I’m just grateful we were able to pull this off.
If you have even an inkling to travel with an elderly relative or friend, I hope you’ll seize the day and make it happen. We’re already planning our next trip.
You might like to read this next:
Bonus: Tips for travel with seniors
This road trip was definitely a learning experience. Here are a few things that helped us better enjoy our trip:
Get prescriptions refilled before you leave.
My Mom already had enough of her medications to last the trip, but it’s something to check ahead of time.
Agree on your COVID safety protocol ahead of time.
I’m more COVID-cautious than my Mom despite her higher risk profile. For us to travel well together, I had to loosen a couple of my standards and she had to tighten some of hers. Luckily California weather cooperated so we could spend much of our time outdoors, but we still had to compromise. I packed extra masks and COVID tests just in case.
Book accessible lodging.
Most motels and hotels have rooms that comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. They have showers with grab bars and in some cases walk-in showers with no steps, accessible toilets, and more room to maneuver (great for folks who use walkers). These rooms are also accessible without having to negotiate stairs. Keep this in mind if you use services like Airbnb.
If you have one, bring a handicapped parking placard.
These prime parking spots, situated by ramps and wide access spaces, saved us.
Build extra time into your itinerary.
I wasn’t sure what Mom’s pace would be. It turned out to take us longer than expected to traverse relatively short distances, and we had to take frequent breaks. The few times we pushed it time-wise (like trying to see every exhibit at the Academy Museum), we were sorry. When it doubt, go slow and do less.
Prepare for transition time.
I was a little hover-y at the beginning of the trip, and it totally irritated my Mom. She said I was babying her, and I guess I was. But it was hard to walk the line between helpful and overbearing. We got there, but it took time.
Relax your expectations.
Mom’s a late sleeper. She likes to linger and chat. She stops for all dogs and engages all dog owners in conversation. (OK, I do, too, but not for as long.) We had to stop at pharmacies for unexpected supplies. It took her a long time to look something up on her phone, if she was able to do it at all. I had to loosen up and go with the flow.
Research accessible tours.
We took the ADA tour at Hearst Castle which had a total of four people, special transportation and no stairs. It was like getting a private tour!
Listen to an audiobook.
Mom and I have wildly different music tastes. Spotify was out. Before we left, I downloaded Michelle Obama’s latest book, The Light We Carry. We listened during long driving stretches. Talk about the perfect book to listen to with your mother! Michelle talked about her own mom, parenting her own daughters, and so much more. Her storytelling unlocked my Mom’s and she got to talking about her own upbringing. It was fantastic.
Ask for senior discounts.
And I mean everywhere! Every time Mom got a few bucks or percentage points off a price, she was delighted.
Take more pictures.
Like I said, I’m not a great documenter. I wish I had taken more pictures of my Mom and asked for more pictures of us together.
I’d love to hear your tips and experiences in the comments.