Seniors travel to Europe

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts on the topic of what I’ll call, for want of a better term, “senior travel”.

I’ll start off with an apology to Readers for using the term “senior”, which seems to irk some people mightily. However, I regard it as less irksome than various other names that might be used instead such as “seasoned adult” (the euphemism favored in Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes on campuses around the U.S.). Personally, I’d prefer to say “geezer” rather than “senior”, which reminds me of the “senior coffee” I was recently offered in a MacDonalds.

The term “geezer” is used with affection and a dab of irony in Alabama, where I worked for many years. But I don’t think that using it represents a workable terminological solution. First, there is the risk of offending people with little sense of humour. (I have met a few of these.) Second, the term seems to be gender specific. I’ve never heard anyone referred to as a “geezerette”. I’ll await suggestions from readers of this blog in the hope of retiring the term “senior traveller” once and for all. We can offer the expression a gold watch when we say goodbye.

Why the interest in “seniors”, that is, persons in the 55-plus age range?

It’s simply this: As Baby Boomers mature they are becoming the darlings of the tourism industry. Not too long ago, persons over age 55 were considered a non-starter for mass marketers who managed to find easy ways to sell the narrow range of products that older folks were thought likely to consume (dental adhesives, stair lifts, burial plots, and so on).

Marketers now regard Boomers as the high rollers of today’s listless economy. Boomers continue to command attention, just as they have always done through their pampered and privledged lifetimes. Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are numerous and relatively affluent. Many have retired, or will soon retire with a decent pension, something that is less likely to hold true later for their sons and daughters. Moreover, many Boomers will inherit, or have already inherited, freely spendable cash from their parents. Add to this mix the fact that Boomers are better educated than their parents, have already acquired a taste for European travel, and proclaim themselve to be more interested in buying “experiences” than “things” and you get a target population the tourism industry adores.

When the Boomers reached their 40s, stretchable jeans materialized on the clothing racks at Macy’s. Salespeople sold them without a smirk, just as if these denim gems had always hung there and were as american pie as plaid bermudas. Now that seniors are reaching or nearing retirement age, “senior travel” is beginning to appear on the sale racks at travel agencies without the slightest hint of mirth.

This is easy to understand. Operating tours is profitable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is getting paid in full before delivering the goods. Tours are sometimes purchased on impluse even though they are big ticket items. This is because Boomers crave travel.

Research carried out by the AARP indicates that when they look ahead to their eventual retirement, Boomers place travel very near the top of their list of desires. It’s right behind “spend more time with family.” Yes, some retirees end up passing most of their time in LayZboy watching TV. It’s also true that in today’s dismal economy some are compelled for economic reasons to postpone retirement or downsized it to semi-retirement. The desire to travel nonetheless remains a fixed star for most recent retirees, even if postponed. Dreams, after all, have a long shelf-life.

So what’s out there for seniors with money in the bank, time on their hands and a bad case of wanderlust? In this series I’ll focus on travel to Europe, which remains Boomers’ favorite overseas travel destination.

An outfit called Europe Senior Tourism offers “comprehensive holiday programmes” in Spain. They’ll put you up in a 4-star hotel, furnish half-board (including water and wine to drink) and haul you to and from the airport. They’ll also providee a tour guide who speaks your language and ply you daily with entertainment.

Europe Senior Tourism, unlike the remodelled Elderhostel program in North America (now operating under the name Road Scholar), is quite sticky about age. They require that clients be “at least” 55 years old. The only concession tseniortourismo this strict age requirement is allowing a client to be accompanied by a younger “travel companion”. This important concession likely exists for the benefit of elderly clients who can no longer travel on their own.

Here in Europe older people are much more likely to hire live-in help than go live in a “retirement community” (here, once again, terminology gets thorny). Americans or Canadians without a full-time caretaker have needed to come up with a different solution, namely, to offer a trip to a younger relative such as a daughter or granddaughter.

A person who signed herself “Stella from NY” offered some useful tips for the younger, acccompanying person in an article appearing on the SlowTrav website in 2006. Stella wrote about a trip to Italy she had taken with her mother, a “relatively fit and healthy” 78-year old with reduced vision, hearing and stamina.

Stella had visited Italy on her own three times before and so her decision to accompany her mother was primarily an act of filial devotion. Stella notes that the accompanying person must accept that the primary focus of the trip is the “beloved elderly parent, grandparent, friend, or relative”. To help herself adapt to this new role, she found it helpful to remind herself that she’d havee plenty of her own trips in the future, and that the needs and wishes of her mother necessarily had to come first. After all, she writes, “seniors move at a different pace, and they have different physical, and … emotional needs.” This is something that professional caretakers in Europe know quite well.

Stella pointed out something else that is just as important as it is obvious: travel destinations for seniors must be chosen with great care.

Stella decided to take her mother to large cities in Italy because such cities offer ready access to a variety of “conveniences … as well as ease of transportation in the form of taxis and buses.” Travel to the coastal areas and the Italian countryside, according to Stella, “can be physically challenging for fit and healthy adults, and may be nearly impossible for a senior with mobility issues.”

Italian cities, Stella reckoned, offer “plenty of things to see and do.”. Renting a villa in the countryside, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like a good plan fore senior travel because the primary aim of vacations in a rented villa is “simply to relax and stay put”. Stella’s remak implies that most seniors who travel to Europe have plenty of “relax and stay put” back home and thus seek movement and stimulation within the range of capacities. Something new and different, in fact.

Stella concludes that a “medium-sized city or small village may also be entirely appropriate” for senior travellers. We’ll explore this last thought further in future posts.

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About Jim Flege

I moved to Italy after retiring from an academic career in an American university, and now live in a small hilltop town north of Rome with my Italian wife and dog.
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