I took my dad to Italy a few weeks ago.
If you knew the whole story, you might say it was a bit of a miracle.
I’m the last person who should be surprised. For me, Italy and miracles go hand-in-hand.
So if you’re a senior not sure if you can make it to Italy or there’s a senior you love who you want to bring to our favorite country, gather round my friends because I didn’t name this business Dream of Italy for nuthin’! We’re in the business of making dreams come true…
If you’ve followed me for a long time, you might know that my most frequent travel companion to Italy was my mother. We probably took 20 or more trips together over more than 20 years, the last being when my parents joined me in my ancestral hometown Castelvetere sul Calore to film an episode for the PBS series. My mother had stage 4 cancer at the time. Everything about that trip was a miracle.
When my mother passed away last April, so much changed. Though still very functional, engaged and funny, my 81-year-old dad has some memory issues that mean he can’t live alone. He can walk very well, but not long distances. He and I (his only child) now live together. I’m a person who eats challenges for breakfast but managing his care and his life while trying to run two businesses and my life has been, uhm, daunting, to say the least. But we do what we have to do…
(I know so very many of you also find yourself facing the very difficult realities of eldercare. I have found this article The Crisis of America’s Working Daughters to be spot on – no matter if you are a woman or a man.)
And man, I would get a lump in my throat thinking of all the trips to come to Italy without my mom. I returned once in the fall – and hired someone to stay with my dad – but thought, maybe I should bring my dad next time. I kept dismissing the idea…
And for that I can clearly hear my mom loudly scolding me…Sorry Ma!…because for my mother, the cup was always half full and there was always another adventure to be had no matter what the challenges!
Listen, we need to be realistic about limitations, but that can be very different from buying into a diagnosis or a story society tells us about a condition, or even aging itself. I bought into something that wasn’t quite true. The truth is my dad’s life is not over, just ever so changed. He’s still him. And he’s been truly yearning for connection and adventure as I think there’s nothing lonelier than losing a spouse and losing some cognitive ability at the same time. And the communities those who are married have don’t always show up when half of the couple is gone.
Sometimes, it takes a relative stranger to shake things up.
I met Becky Munson (right in the photo) in October cocktail party we filmed at Bramasole, the home of Frances and Ed Mayes, for the Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special. She runs trips to Cortona through her company Live Tuscan. We reconnected a few months later in the U.S. and Back invited me and my dad to join her in Tuscany.
I kind of questioned her, like “I don’t know about my dad.” And she insisted he could do it. For months…before she ever met him, “Bring him,” she kept saying. Just knowing.
And it was the among the best things I have ever done. Who am I to question the magic of Italy? My dad was reborn. I built a trip focused only on Tuscany, including some work filming Tuscan Sun Special promotions and tips for Create TV with Frances Mayes and taping some episodes for the new podcast, around spending time with Becky’s group in Cortona.
Want to see what fun he had? Check out this video of him dancing with Becky and the ladies in the group.
You know what gave my dad new life in Italy? The people! Everyone from our hosts Sal and the crew at the castle, Becky and Vittorio with Live Tuscan, David at La Corte dei Papi, Silvia at Il Falconiere to our fellow travelers to the Italians and expats we would meet in the piazza or at a vineyard, engaged with my dad and welcomed him with open arms. Italy celebrates older people more than America does, that’s for sure.
While I’m a risk taker and believe whatever is going to happen is going to happen and that its better that we can say that we truly lived, I didn’t decide on the trip based on fantasy alone. I asked two of his doctors if they thought he could do it and they both said, go for it. I also know that I have the distinct advantage of knowing the country well and having friends and colleagues close by if anything went wrong.
Italy proved to me my dad is still in the game and he’s still in the game because of this Italy trip. When are we going back?
Here are some things I recommend to make traveling to Italy with a senior or as a senior easier.
- Assess your comfort with risk and/or realize that life at home is full of risks too. In 2004, my father had his first heart valve replacement – performed by the Dr. Oz, no less. A few days before surgery as his heart was failing, my mom found my dad (not a macho guy, but still a guy) doing vigorous work fixing their deck. “What are you doing?” she screamed “I’m going with my boots on – like a cowboy,” he replied. Maybe that says something about my family’s attitude about really living even if there’s a risk.
- Consider buying refundable airplane tickets. Becky invited us about six months before the actual trip so I didn’t know what my dad’s health would be at the time of the trip. Our plane tickets were going to be a huge expense. I’ve flown Norwegian – non-stop Newark to Rome – several times in both coach and Premium and I love that they have a Flex option which makes fares completely refundable until 24 hours before departure. The pricing isn’t that much higher than their regular tickets. Traditional airlines like United, Delta, etc. do offer refundable fares but they are very high. You can also rely on travel insurance if you need to cancel.
- Splurge for roomier airplane seats and try for non-stop flights. I guessed the most challenging part of the trip for my dad would be all the flying so I didn’t want to stuff my dad in coach, but we can’t afford Business Class so that’s what made Norwegian PremiumFlex very attractive. The Premium seats aren’t lie-down but they are almost as roomy as Business on other airlines. The configuration is 2-3-2. So plenty more room. The cost was $1900 round trip for each of us. Our particular Premium seats (maybe because I went through a travel agent who worked his magic) also came with lounge access in the U.S. and in Rome.
- Get compression socks and get up while flying! My dad is a good sport. I bought us both compression socks to help with the risk of blood clots. I’m the only one who wore them on the way back. I also nudged him to get up and walk around a few times. Good advice for all of us at any age.
- Buy a Medjet policy to ensure if you or your loved one is hospitalized while traveling, you will be transported home. What was the most difficult thing that might happen on the trip? Well, what if my dad ended up in the hospital? Did you know that most travel insurance policies and credit card policies will only get you to the nearest acceptable medical facility, not all the way home? Crazy! And when I learned that a few years ago, I bought an annual Medjet membership. If you’re 150 miles or more from home, and hospitalized, Medjet will get you home to the hospital of your choice. It isn’t something you buy each trip, you just join annually. Literally, the second thing I did after buying the plane tickets was call Medjet to see if I could get my dad a membership, even at his age. I’m a little obsessed with Medjet. I think it is the best idea in travel. Fortunately, Medjet has a Diamond Policy for ages 75 to 84. We just had to fill out a questionnaire and have his doctor sign it and my dad was covered. Big load off my shoulders!
- Buy travel insurance and get a policy that covers pre-exisiting conditions. I feel most comfortable having a Medjet policy AND buying an individual trip policy. I’ve learned it can get tricky if you have to make a claim based on what a travel insurance company considers a pre-existing condition. A friend suggested calling Insuremytrip.com and they located two companies that offer policies for pre-existing policies in my state. Yes, the policies are more expensive but since most of my trip was refundable I didn’t have much trip costs to cover and paid less than $300 to cover both of us. With the average trip cost, such a policy might cost $400-500 a person but it is worth it.
- Err on the side of getting wheelchair service at the airport. Unless your senior is very physically fit, opting for wheelchair can save on physical strain and isn’t flying tolling enough. New York’s JFK for instance is one of those gargantuan airports that requires a lot of walking, but Italy isn’t better. Did you know that the distance from check-in to the gate at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport is 1.25 miles? And the day we left, it was hot and the AC wasn’t working very well.
- And if you are wheelchair bound all the time, don’t let that stop you! Italy is becoming more accessible and we’ve been written about options for custom travel and tours. Some regular tour companies like Perillo Tours welcome those using a scooter or collapsible wheelchair as they bring a companion to assist. Or try our travel service to match you with a company that plans accessible travel.
- Bring extra medicine; don’t put it in checked luggage. I knew we could lose anything but his meds. He takes a heart medication that keeps him alive. I kept it close and brought an extra 10 days worth. I kept thinking of 9/11 and planes not flying for days. Better to be safe than sorry.
- Avoid the stairs or just exercise some caution. We stayed in three places on the trip. The first had an elevator but the last two had a flight of stairs to the room. Actually we made a choice when looking at the rooms to stay in the rooms with the stairs. My dad is agile but you never know about that combination of wine and jet lag! He did fine but it can be a consideration. Also, think about internal steps in the room. One room had a step between the bedroom and the bathroom. Concerned my dad might fall in the middle of the night, I put a chair blocking it. I knew if he got up and tried to move it, I would wake up and help him. Also I left the bathroom light on!
- Don’t plan very much for your first full day. We spent the first few days with our friends at Castello delle Serre (I’ve written about them before and they are now offering 10% off to my followers with code: dreamofitaly) and I thought sitting at that stunning castle pool most of the day would be a great way to recover from the flight. And then we simply took a two-hour drive around the Val d’Orcia during the golden hour before sunset – the simple pleasures!
- Follow the rhythm of the Italian day and rest in the afternoon. Funny, this is the advice my friend Rosanne gives in our traveling with kids podcast episode — but it applies to everyone, I think. My dad was great in keeping up with my ambitious schedule. I’ve never seen him take a proper nap in my life. He’s just not a napper. But I would get him a Coca-Cola and some snacks in the afternoon and he would sit on the lounge chair and close his eyes for a bit. To prepare for the dinner round of more eating and drinking!
- Renting a car can have its advantages. I purposely kept our trip limited to the Tuscan countryside. With a car, it was easy to get my dad close enough to things so he didn’t have to walk a long distances. I really like the flexibility of having a car. (I always use Auto Europe and they offer 5% off to my followers with code: 72002261) For instance when we would drive up the hill to the main area Cortona while staying at the nearby countryside locations with Live Tuscan and at La Corte dei Papi (save 10% with code: dreamofitaly), I would drop my dad off at Piazza Garibaldi, tell him to wait, park the car further away and walk back to get him and walk into town.
- You can also consider a car and driver. This is the one trip cost that has really gone up in cost in recent years. It used to be that hiring a car and driver was a bargain. But you can still make it work. Say you’re staying in Florence and want the countryside experience without taking a train, hire a car and driver for a day and you can cover a lot of ground – a few vineyards, an abbey and a great place for lunch. My dad and I didn’t do the group walking tours with Live Tuscan in Assisi and Siena because of the steep hills but private car and driver would have made that more possible.
- But even in the cities, there are innovative ways to get around easily. Again, a tip from friends with kids works well for seniors. My friend took her kids to Rome and they explored the city via golf cart through Rolling Rome. There are now several choices for e-car tours of Florence; I recently heard about Eco Tours Italia. Venice of course can be easy by vaporetto or water taxi.
- Hang out in the piazza! Even if he can’t speak the language (he actually knows about 10 words – that helps), my dad had a ball people watching both the Italians and tourists alike. I swear I could have sat him in the piazza half of every day and he would have been a happy guy and I think most of us would, no matter what our age! That’s of course the advice of my friend Frances Mayes in her new book, See You in the Piazza!
- I’m supposed to tell you not to try to do too much…the advice might actually be, keep things flexible. I don’t always practice what I preach. I keep a fast pace when I travel to Italy and for the most part, my amazing dad kept up. Or if I was busy doing an interview or touring a property, he would happily sit with his book in the shade. But about five or six days into it, I knew we both needed to rest, so I told Becky we wouldn’t be joining to group for a truffle hunt (I know, I know my favorite but my dad would have had a long walk on uncertain terrain) and we just sat by the pool for hours and enjoyed some lunch and reading. It replenished our reserves for the rest of the trip.
- I love the idea of renting a villa with your senior or seniors. A villa vacation is great for multi-generational trips. Part of the group can tour and some can stay and just enjoy the villa. You can have a chef come in to teach a cooking lesson. If mobility is an issue, you can have your dinners at “home” at the villa.
- Consider a cruise. You can cover a lot of ground and the organized shore excursions can often cut down on the amount of walking and logistical challenges. I recently wrote an article for Cruise Critic about going deeper cruising Italy. I’ve considered a cruise as the next trip for my dad.
- Bring a great attitude. This was hands down the secret sauce of our trip. My dad is super positive and game for anything. He’s easy going and knew we would have magic!
This list of tips just scratches the surface. I’d love to know about your tips and thoughts. You can leave a comment below or email me and I might use your tip in a future article.