Uneven aging: On the road

When couples or friends travel, uneven aging shows up like a souvenir seller on a beach: an unwelcome intrusion you'll face at some point.

Sometimes the afflicted person, longing for adventure,  stimulation—or just her money's worth—signs on for more activity than she can handle. Other times, a companion plans an ambitious trip without considering the demands on stamina. When the less-fit of the pair (or group) hears the itinerary, she may not speak about her health issues, fearing she'd dampen the fun.

Rachel and her husband cruised to Spain, where they rented a car and drove to Italy and France. What should have been a long-awaited five-week celebration of Noah's retirement turned into misery before the first border was crossed. "Very suddenly, I saw that Noah could not cope with the land part", she said. "I had to do all the driving, which exhausted me. He became extremely anxious; I've never seen him so agitated. Every day, he wanted to know where would we eat. I had booked the hotels, but not restaurants. He kept asking, 'How far do I have to walk?' He wouldn't even carry a bag."

By the time they flew home from Nice, she was drained and resentful. Once back, she regained her compassion. Home life had disguised the extent of Noah's debilitating condition; he could not be open about something even he did not fully realize.

Their next trip, two years later, was cruise only, removing the sources of stress for both. She missed  their footloose flexibility, but Noah was a happy man once he could sleep in the same bed every night and get eggs over easy with turkey bacon for breakfast. Rachel, freed from trying to find acceptable restaurants in strange towns, was a blissful ship spa client.

That's a solution out of many travellers' budgets, but the principle is sound: better to travel less often, and spend on supports such as a private room, more cabs, the rental of assistive devices, or booking a personal tour guide.

There is a psychological side to travel, too. "Uneven aging" means one person is in better shape than the other, and for the less-fit person, that can be embarrassing. Her ego will roar like a wounded lion.

The description of the yoga tour I took to India in my late 50s said classes would be offered for all levels, but everyone else was an advanced yogini and craved challenge, so the teacher went with that. I was full of self-recrimination until I realized that it was not my fault. I told the teacher I'd do what I could, and spent some time during each four-hour class just resting on my mat. Some days, I cut class to walk the beach and enjoy a Kingfisher with lunch—yes! 

But I was lucky; the women on the tour were warm and made no judgment about my limitations. Besides, when we went to the night markets, they depended on me to find the best jewellery. My bruised ego was salved by their gratitude.

Marcelle had no such advantage on an archaeological tour to Turkey. She had long been a confident solo traveller, but on this tour, she thought she'd die of heatstroke trying to keep up. She could either stumble along, sweaty and miserable, or sit alone on a broiling bus; the AC was turned off while the others hiked the ruins. She knew no one else, and the group wasn't friendly. The tour leader curtly pointed out that the trip brochure said there would be extensive walking. "They were kind of like, 'What are you doing here?'", she said.

She threw in the Turkish towel after four sweltering days, and hired a driver to take her ahead to the last stop for a three-night stay in a charming boutique hotel. Though she paid quite a bit for that respite, it turned out to be the high point of the trip. She sent a photo of her dinner on the terrace and said, "Now I know the Turkey that suits me."

A traveller with health issues will need a backup plan should the original itinerary prove unworkable. The abler partner has to keep an eye out; even on an 'easy' trip, the less-vital partner may be dazzled by all on offer, and push too hard.

Another friend, C., will take a family trip to Sedona this winter. His preparation includes a 12-week strength, balance and mobility course at his local hospital. For those without local resources, a number of books and video programs are available on Amazon, from mat to water-based approaches. (Another plug here for the iBook "How to Watch TV and Get Fit", which builds strength at home in efficient three-minute sets.)

A list of tour companies which cater to varying levels of ability is here. Before selecting a tour (or planning a self-led trip), each person should speak openly about the realities of stamina and mobility but also about details such as the requirement for an elevator or the need for a regular nap. Then, choose what's realistic—never mind that you don't see every monument. You might also decide to scale the trip to meet those needs: a shorter flight or crossing fewer time zones can make or break the less-fit partner's experience.

As Rachel found, you have live with your partner or friend long after you've unpacked. "I plan for him to be comfortable on the trip", she said, "and that makes all the difference back home."


marywyatt said…
Excellent post. You cover the issues that many are facing now and offer insight and suggestions. Thank you.
materfamilias said…
What a thoughtful and helpful approach to a sensitive topic! Although I'm quite fit for my age, my husband has always been stronger and more energetic, and he takes much longer before feeling thirst or hunger. Too often, I try to be a trooper about it -- sometimes this works, but regularly it just exhausts me and he doesn't even notice enough to give me the praise I must, at some level, foolishly crave as compensation. So much better when I just say firmly, "Okay, we've been walking for an hour and a half, and now I need to stop for a glass of something." But despite years of travelling together, I can still find this very tough to do, tough to admit that I'm the weaker one although he's always quick to point out my considerable contribution to the travel project at hand. I don't suppose it will get any easier over the next decade, but I'll keep your suggestions in mind. . . .
Gretchen said…
Timing on this is excellent, and relevant for more than life partners. My kids just went for a week-long trip with their father to Disneyworld (not my type of vacation, but he had wanted to take them for years), and it got testy only a few days in since he's not fit, eats poorly, and gets heat exhaustion easily, and the 20-year olds had to force him to scale back and rest. Empathy and compassion are critical at all ages, and serves as a reminder not to wait until "later" to do the travel you desire.
Madame Là-bas said…
What an insightful post! My husband,who suffers from a mood disorder, needs the security of a familiar diet and bed. Cruises and all-inclusive resorts are his favourites. He is not interested in struggling with "foreign" culture or language. I usually share some U.S. trips and an occasional resort holiday with him and then go off and do my own thing. As we move into the next decade, I'm sure that mobility will become an issue. Certainly, paying for some "extras" will make our travels together more enjoyable.
angiemanzi said…
I totally understand the limitations that come with uneven aging. But sometimes, it isn't uneven aging that is the issue, it is laziness and unwillingness to do anything outside the comforts of the usual. Regrettably, in my case, my understanding of those limitations has limited me in making trips with my husband and now, with having to deal with that, I am unable to do what I love. So in addition to dealing with his limitations, his unwillingness and understanding his issues, I am also trying to deal with my resentment. I am not sure there is a fix for that.
Laura J said…
An excellent post; the concept of uneven aging is very helpful now that we are both retired an working out new routines and patterns. The triumvirate of time money and body is changing--- thank you for your post
Jean Shaw said…
Timely post; my husband and I have just been talking about that with regard to friends who are planning a trip to Portugal in the late winter. We suspect that it's going to be a bit of a challenge with regard to mobility. Hope we're wrong.
Kamchick said…
This is a timely post for us. I am the older, but fitter partner...so far! My husband has been recently 'diagnosed' with Parkinson's, but I am not at all sure he has it (a very poor appointment and assessment, not by a balance/mobility specialist). We patiently sit on the 'wait list' for a more competent professional. Meanwhile, however it turns out, we ARE ageing unevenly and there IS a mobility problem that could present serious problems even in day-to-day life. This is life and has to be handled in a positive, compassionate way with fairness to both partners. It will be an interesting and challenging journey.
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: There is "uneven hardiness" despite age or equality of other characteristics. I'd say, praise is not relevant when it comes to needs for basic physical supports. I have seen men (not Pater! not Pater!) adopt the posture of the "mountain man" who never needs to stop, replace fluids, or need a bathroom as if this was somehow laudable. We have our outmoded cultural models and they have theirs.

Gretchen: I had any travel companion(s) in mind when I wrote this. I've observed the same issues for intergenerational travel as for uneven aging.

Mme Là-bas: Aging can either bring such disorders or make them more prominent. It's smart to accommodate when you can, but not curtail your own travels, and you are lucky you two have reached that understanding.

Kamchick: I met friends in Paris last year, and the husband of the couple has Parkinson's. We adapted to his needs for rest. There were also times when he said he wanted to do something, then found he could not- so we had to have lots of "Plan B's".

But there were times when his wife, fired up and wanting to do one more long walk, was not always so caring. I felt caught in the middle- she had longed for this meet up for years. Generally it worked out, but it was a delicate situation.

angiemanzi: My first question reading your comment was, Has he always been like this, or did this arise in later years? Some persons are just homebodies. (The travel industry makes much of the glories of travel, but truly it is not enjoyed by everyone.)

If he was always an unwilling traveler, get out there and do what you love with a like-minded friend or group. If his reluctance has arisen in the past handful of years, then I'd wonder what is at the bottom of it? (Possible reasons include worry about the expense, concerns about personal safety, or unease in coping with other languages- and that's just a partial list.)
As soon as you label his preference for the comforts of the usual "laziness", you have written yourself a prescription for resentment- which harms a relationship. I am being very direct, but that's why I write this blog.

And maybe he is a little lazy- sometimes a person decides that the effort of travel is not all that rewarding. I doubt you will change his attitude, so a) read Mme Là-bas' comment, and b) try a short solo or group getaway and see how you like it.

Laura Jantek: I appreciate that you have added money to the equation. Stamina (what you call "the body") is, I have observed, the major factor, but money helps. An older couple I met recently love to go to India but have begun to book in several days ' stay enroute in Germany, where they formerly had just changed planes, to rest, and minimize to the jet lag. They say it has made a big difference to how they get off the plane in Mumbai.

Jean: That may be, and ultimately, that will be the case for most of us. I saw a chart that the insurance companies use; the prime travel age period was 65-75, with a marked decline by late 70s. Some superelders will globetrot in their 90s, but not many.
Leslie M said…
Lordy, what a great post. I returned yesterday from a two and a half week trip to Portugal and Spain. While we aren't mismatched in stamina, comfort with travel - new places, food, etc, there are new challenges emerging. Toward the end of the trip my husband grew anxious and irritable, turning a lovely time into a stressful and unpleasant one. He has a moderate, treated, mood disorder, which comes out when he puts unreasonable expectations on himself. It started when he couldn't locate the entrance to the car rental office. No big deal, right? He has some insight into his moods but, I could argue, not enough. :-) I am starting to think that our time away should be limited to 2 weeks or less. He may be showing signs of hotel fatigue but he/we haven't figured that out yet. For now, it presents as irritability. Your words of compassion and compromise have been very useful and I will refer to them again prior to our next vacation! Regarding your comment about aging travelers, my husbands parents are in their late 80's and take several overseas trips and cruises everyear. They are currently planning a trip to Japan. Remarkable.
Duchesse said…
Leslie Milligan: Oh I relate to that... on long trips there comes a time when I just do not want to eat another restaurant meal or be in public. (That's a big reason why we now rent an apt.) And we both like to settle in somewhere for a week or more rather than cram in many stops.

But also I think some people have the Travel Gene., like others have the Go Fast gene. I was talking. to a friend who was a competitive downhill skier in high school. I said downhill was sheer terror to me, and I realized some people are wired for it and others not.
Mary said…
Wonderful post. And timely. In two weeks, my husband and I fly out west for a 10 day trip through southern Utah to visit five national parks as a celebration of a special anniversay. I've rented a sports car which means my husband (a car fanatic) will do most of the driving (as they say, Mamma didn't raise no fool). While hiking is on the schedule, I am hampered by an incomplete recovery from ankle surgery less than two years ago. We'll see how well my husband tolerates my limitations though he has been good about it at home. I am quite fine with him going on longer hikes without me. A book and a shady place to sit will suit me. We've talked about this already, so hopefully it won't be an issue. Fingers crossed. But what probably helps me cope with our different travel styles is that I have a solo trip to London planned in several months (celebrating my retirement). I like traveling alone--had to do so for work for decades. I will be in an apartment so can manage my own breakfast and dinner. Can set my own pace based on my stamina each day and go to classical concerts, galleries and exhibitions my husband does not enjoy. I am very fortunate.
Duchesse said…
Mary: This is a fine example of mutual accommodation. (I have found some days are better-handled than others but if overall it averages out the trip is a success.)

I too enjoy solo travel, at least while I can still hoist a suitcase into an overhead bin.
I am thinking of some friends who live nearby, who had a MAJOR health crisis on a family-oriented trip to Hawaii (Sone living there as a doctor). Blood in urine; incipient bladder cancer in the horrific US non-system). My friends had travel insurance of course, which will usually pretty much take care of coverage in places with a civilised health system. It was quite the saga back home (helped by doctor son) but now my friend (I knew the woman, younger, long before I knew the man, though they are now both close friends) is very frustrated by the inadequacy of social support, and is very much on edge. Not pleasant. I offered to do anything I could (small shopping, cooking, cat feeding etc.) which was appreciated but not taken up upon yet, which is fine.

Fortunately my female friend's son, his wife and their two children live above in the duplex.

My only AIEEEE reaction was the idea of a cruise. No, no, no.

Trains and rentals.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: As we age something-from Delhi Belly to a more potentially serious situation as you describe-is far more likely.

Every person has preferred means of travel. Ideally, I'd like a private railroad car!
royleen said…
What a timely post, and so thoughtful. We have adjusted pretty well over the years. Tonight we have both caught a cold, and so early to bed... even though we are on a lovely trip. As Will and Ariel Durant said, "In a long term relationship, some decades are better than others." We enjoy the journey, and hope for the best.
Beth said…
Hah, I like the Durant quote! This is such a good post, and could be expanded. Travel seems to exaggerate both compatibilities and differences, and as in every area of relationship, good communication is key. I've learned to say when I need to eat or have a bathroom or rest break, and he's clear about his needs too. We check in with each other each night and morning and adjust our plans for the coming day according to sleep, energy level, preferences, etc, and try to have a general but flexible plan for the trip. Right now we're pretty compatibly matched, but that wasn't true for a while, and may not be in the future. We've weathered travel illnesses, injuries, thefts, and unexpected events together, but so far nothing has stopped us from enjoying the trips and the "new" partner you often find because of dealing with newness and change.
Laura J said…
As we age money becomes an issue I believe. Less camping out wit friends (many of whom have wisely downsized ); the need to rent a car instead of buses or walking; additional reserve funds for emergencies which earlier on we would not have dreamed of. The list can be added to but the takeaway is that all this may be for only one in a couple! But necessary! Sometimes being a tourist in one's own town may be a solution
Duchesse said…
royleen: It's wise to take the same care of ourself that you;dtake at home and not try to push through a cold or even a day when you're simply tired.

Beth: Another friend said, "You want to test a relationship, go on a trip!" But she was speaking of new ones, but long-term relationships also change under the requirements of travel. Your habit of daily check-ins is terrific. Many travellers set an ambitious itinerary while still at home and feel bound to stick to it.

Laura Jantek: You and live in large, diverse cities with much to do, so "staycations" can be deeply satisfying. (When our children were small, we would do this occasionally- hire a sitter the kids especially liked', check into a local hotel for two nights, and lark about the way you can't with three year olds.)

A few years ago Le Duc and I celebrated a decade anniversary with a stay in a luxury inn a few hours' drive away. The cost was dizzying (we needed two rooms), and we agreed we would have been wiser to sleep in our own apartment and have dinner somewhere special in our own city.
Moushka said…
Great post. My husband and son went to Ireland, the trip a gift from our son for his dad’s seventieth birthday. DH had never wanted to travel, which always frustrated me as I had travelled quite a bit before we married. He came home a changed man, enthusiastic for another trip but I am the one with no stamina or strength! So we made plans for next year. I joined a gym and went on a LCHF diet. Have already lost eleven pounds in a month! Am loving the exercise. Our plans are for Greece in the fall of 2018. I don’t know how much of a transformation I can accomplish in a year but we will find out. Planning the trip together is a great motivator. DH walks 10-15k./day, has always been strong and fit. He’s always been very patient and supportive, though. Unfortunately, I took a bad fall while exercising and I’m desperately hoping it won’t quash our plans. Right now I’m having major knee pain. Will find out more next week. Again, such a great post.
Nora Hardy said…
Greetings! I have far flung family, making international travel possible and necessary to see them. Having developed serious knee arthritis,I haven't been able to walk long distances. Do take advantage of the airlines' early boarding and wheelchair services. They have been life-savers for me. I also decided to us a cane with a foldout seat which helps a lot. Mine came from an Asian street vendor but Amazon has them, too. Last year I had one knee replaced, what a difference! I travelled before complete healing (takes a long time), so I rented a wheelchair and didn't miss out on exploring Singapore' gardens and ethic areas. I didn't need it for daily life at home or their, but it allowed me to take full advantage of my sightseeing opportunities. It was $100 US very well spent!
Duchesse said…
Nora Hardy: Thank you for sharing your experience; knee replacement is one of the most common surgeries and it's great to hear it did not keep you at home. (I assume you got the OK from your dr.)

And also about the cane. I know a number of persons who resist a cane (sometimes to the point of insisting a friend be their "device"), even though it would make a difference for both energy and safety. Another friend walks everywhere (not just on trips, when she walks through local streets, too) with Nordic walking poles. An illness left her with balance problems but the poles counteract that and she says she simply looks like a fitness enthusiast.

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