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Trip Report Travel with the elderly - or how to beat the line-ups!

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I just returned from a trip to Paris and Barcelona with my 90 year old mother and an 85 year old friend. Before the trip I was extremely nervous and kept thinking we had to be crazy - so many things could go wrong. But everything went more or less smoothly, everyone had a great time and my husband and I only acquired a few more grey hairs in the process. I'm writing this to share what we learned, so that anyone contemplating travelling with (very) elderly parents will know it just may be doable.

My DH suggested we take my Mom along on our trip to Barcelona for a conference, as my Dad had died last year and he thought it would cheer her up to have something to look forward to. Mom agreed so I went ahead and booked tickets into Paris and out of Barcelona, since Mom had visited Paris once 40 years ago and always expressed a desire to return. Unfortunately I got the dates of the conference mixed up, (DH neglected to mention before I booked that he had registered for the pre-conference) so instead of spending 5 days in Paris and 5 days in Barcelona, we had to leave Paris for Barcelona earlier and only had 2 nights in Paris and 8 nights in Barcelona.

I booked Easyjet flights Paris to Barcelona, a one bedroom apartment with sofa-bed in Paris we had stayed in last year and loved, and found a two bedroom apartment in Barcelona that looked nice. Then Mom decided to persuade her good friend, my sister-in-law's Mom, to come along, thinking she would have company so DH and I could sometimes do things on our own. DD is 85, in very good shape for her age and a lot of fun, and it certainly helped to have her along. The ladies had no problem sharing a bed in Paris and the Barcelona apartment had 2 beds in the 2nd bedroom so it all worked out fine. Because she booked late, DD was with us on the flight to Paris but had to travel home separately on a different flight from Barcelona.

We requested 2 wheelchairs for all the flights, which worked fine everywhere except on arrival in Paris where after a long wait, only one wheelchair showed up after half an hour's wait. We booked through Delta but flew on an Air France plane. The AirFrance people made disparaging remarks about Delta to explain the mix-up. Rather than wait for a second wheelchair, DD walked to the exit. We travelled with carry-on only, at my insistence, which helped with getting 4 people and luggage into a cab. I asked the friendly cab-driver about our return trip to the airport for the early morning Barcelona flight. He said, no problem, he'd be there at 5am, and gave me his number to call to confirm. Normally DH and I take the AirFrance bus or the RER, but we knew this trip would be different and that taxis would be the easiest form of transportation for the senior ladies.

After settling into the apartment in the Marais, we set out for lunch. My Mom can walk with a cane but not for very long distances. It was about 3.00pm when we set out, and many of the little restaurants near the apartment were no longer serving lunch. We eventually found a small place to have sandwiches and coffee. Since we had forgotten something in the apartment, DH and I left the ladies there and walked back to get it, stopping at a little Franprix supermarket to pick up a few things for breakfast the next morning. We rejoined the ladies then took a cab to Notre Dame. Finding taxis on the street in Paris proved more difficult than in Barcelona, where we never waited more than 30 seconds, it seemed. There were cabs parked at a taxi stand on our street in Paris but we never could find any drivers - not sure if they were on break, having a smoke somewhere, no idea.

Anyway, we toured Notre Dame, the gardens, and crossed the bridge to the Left Bank. One of the best things I got for my Mom for the trip was a cane with three legs which doubled as a stool, so whenever she felt tired she could stop for a rest. This proved very handy and twice she was asked by elderly women where she had bought it. DD doesn't normally use a cane but her daughter got her one for the trip, just in case. We walked to Shakespeare and Co because DD wanted a guidebook in English, but they were closed for a reading. By that time we were all flagging a bit so we found a cab, asked the driver to drive us along the river, by some of the sights, through the Louvre etc before dropping us off at a restaurant near our apartment which we had liked before. We were to learn during the course of the trip that fancy restaurant fare did not go over as well with the ladies as steak and fries!

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    The next day we were up fairly early and had breakfast in the apartment. I love this apartment because the owner leaves it well stocked with all the basics - coffe, tea, etc, even a welcoming bottle of wine.

    We found a cab to take us to the Louvre, planning to start our tour there. Only on our arrival did we realize that May 8 was a holiday and most of the museums were closed. There were many disappointed people there, so we were not the only ones with poor research. Anyway, we decided to continue with the Open Tour hop on hop off bus. As we only had such limited time in Paris, we thought this would be the best way to give the ladies an overview of the city without too much effort. the weather was cool and overcast, but the rain held up most of the day we only had a few minutes of light drizzle. We ended up doing all three tours, stopping a few times for lunch and more photos.We didn't want to get on and off too many times, as climbing up and down the stairs was an effort for the senior ladies, and they enjoyed just seeing the sights, taking numerous photographs, and listening to the commentary. As DH and I have been to Paris about 15 times before, we just wanted to show them our favourite city as best we could in a short

    We noticed that the Musee d'Orsay was one of the few museums open when we passed by. DD really wanted to visit an art museum so towards the end of the day we headed to the Orsay by cab. There was still a very long line-up to get in. Remembering something I had read on this forum, I approached the guard at the entrance and asked whether there were wheelchairs for rent. For whom? he asked. I gestured to the ladies, who assumed appropriately piteous expressions. I explained that they were 'tres agees'. "Entrez", he said, ushering us past the long waiting line of visitors. Success! When I asked about renting a wheelchair at the desk inside, the gentleman told me: "We don't rent them, Madame, we lend them, it's better, n'est-ce pas?" I just had to leave my driver's licence. It was really helpful to be
    able to push my Mom around the exhibits, she would not have been able to see half as much as she did. We were to find the same response in all the sites we visited in Barcelona also, I often didn't even have to ask, they'd spot us approaching and offer assistance. One great benefit of travelling with elderly folk.

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    I am loving this report, because we are rapidly reaching the ages of your relatives. How wonderful of you to take the mothers along.

    I love the part about getting wheelchairs and quick entrance to museums. Standing and waiting can be so tiring.

    I brought one of those canes with a seat on a trip to Greece just before I had my hip replacement, and it was a lifesaver at times!

    Thanks, and anxious to hear more.

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    I too am looking forward to more. It's fun to read about how you coped with the older ladies. I once used wheelchair service at the airports, which was great. As I recall, I'd had arthroscopy surgery for a meniscus tear and wanted to delay walking much until we reached our destination. I also carried a cane, which was handy because hotel staff at a couple of hotels offered us rooms on lower floors.

    I am always amused by the fact that ticket counters at museums want to see my I.D. to know whether I'm a senior. You'd think the fact that my hair is white would be a clue, but maybe not enough.

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    just took my mum [80 years young] to Holland for the week. one of the main problems - she was always wanting to do something more when we were knackered and needing a rest.

    looking forward to more, baladeuse,

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    Annhig..Sounds like your mom and I (81 this Aug) should get together and leave you youngsters home or at the hotel..Just returned from a solo in Madrid and never stopped all day!!!Ain't life grand???
    Baladuese..Wonderful of you to take the ladies along..My children let me tag along also and we have a ball (I do, anyhow and they still ask me to accompany them so it must be ok with them)Keep up the good vibes.

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    amer_can - i did occasionally feel that we should have done what you do with teenagers and suggested she bring a friend! i think that part of it was that while we were driving/navigating between places she was having a nice nap in the back of the car, so she woke up refreshed.

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    Thanks for the replies, everyone. Sorry for the delay in returning to my report, but you know how it is when you return to work and feel like you're being punished for going on vacation!

    I'm glad that others can relate to the experience of travelling with older relatives. Nukesafe and amer_can, you're inspiring. I now realize that 81 is still young and hope to be able to continue to travel independently well into my 80's. (Of course I also hope that our kids may want to travel with us, but we value our independence.) Annhig, you're right, having a friend along who was close to her age added to the experience for my mom.

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    Naps in backseats, onpark benches, ih hotel rooms and lobbies are allowed. If you look on s senior level passport you will see this in the very fine print.LOL!!!!! Keep on a'trucking!!!

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    Our cabdriver was true to his word and was waiting outside the apartment at 5am the next morning. Our Easyjet flight to Barcelona was uneventful. The wheelchairs were waiting at both ends of the flight. We paid extra for Speedy boarding, which lets you board ahead of the queue, since seats are unassigned on Easyjet. Easyjet is a better choice of cheap airline between Paris and Barcelona since they fly from CDG to BCN airport, unlike Ryanair which flies into Girona, an hour's bus ride away.

    On arrival in Barcelona, the wheelchair attendants were very helpful with collecting our luggage, which we had checked. They asked us to fill out evaluation forms on their performance, the first time I've ever been asked to do that. We gave them excellent scores.

    An odd coincidence occurred then. The attendants took us straight to the curb and called over a large taxi to accomodate all of us. As we got into the cab I remembered that I was supposed to call the apartment agent from the airport to find out if an early check-in was possible. The friendly cab driver offered to let me use his phone. When I gave him the name and phone number of the agent, he exclaimed "But that's my friend!" and showed me that he already had the number saved on his phone! He told us there were 11,000 taxis in Barcelona and was amazed, as we were, that out of all of them we chose his cab. It was great because he knew exactly where the apartment was, in a narrow alley which many cabdrivers were not familiar with, we found out later. He called Sergio, the agent, and arranged to drop us off at a cafe near the apartment, since the street was pedestrian only, and have someone meet us to lead us to the apartment and help with our luggage. Again, we made arrangements for him to take us back to the airport on our departure date.

    Our apartment was on a little street parallel to the Rambla, close to the Boqueria market. I know many people say don't stay near the Rambla, it's too noisy and crowded etc, but this apartment turned out to be perfect for our purposes. I planned on taking lots of taxis, but I also wanted the ladies to be able to get to restaurants and some points of interest without too much walking, as we would be there 6 days. The Escriba, the lovely cafe on the corner of the Rambla where we met Sergio, became our spot for coffee and delicious pastry on mornings when we didn't feel like making breakfast. A side entrance to the Boquueria market was steps from the apartment, for fruit and snacks and just to marvel at the variety of goods on sale. There was a wine store and a restaurant where we ate twice in the alley. The ladies enjoyed walking on the Rambla, admiring the modernista architecture and marvelling at the constant throng of people, the human statues, the tacky souvenir shops. They could stop to rest and people-watch to their heart's content.

    We were also very close to the Liceu metro stop, so very convenient for DH to get to his conference which was some distance away in the Maresme Forum.

    The apartment itself was quite comfortable and very clean. It has two bedrooms, one good-sized room with a queen bed and another smaller room with two single beds, well-equipped kitchen and nice bathroom with lots of hot water, and a little laundry room with washer and dryer. Our only complaint was the lack of any English channels on the TV, but the Spanish Open (tennis) was on, so the ladies were happy to see Nadal and Federer play, even without English commentary.

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    Here's the info on the apartment if anyone's interested:

    Despite being close to the Rambla, it was very quiet most of the time, except for Saturday night when there were voices from the street.

    After settling into the apartment, DH and I walked to Catalunya Square to the tourist office to get maps and information on events in the city etc. We also found a phone store where I bought a sim card for the unlocked phone I had bought in a discount store at home in Canada. They were also able to unlock DH's Blackberry and install a sim card for his phone, so for the first time in Europe we both had working phones so we could stay in touch.

    Then I helped Dh find the metro stop and figure out how to buy the tickets. Since he had 4 days at the conference he bought 10 tickets which came loaded on a card which you swipe each time you use it. A metro employee explained that we could both use the same card, just swiping it twice. She also warned my husband to be careful with his backpack. It seemed that every time we spoke to someone, in stores, on the buses, in restaurants, they warned us to be careful and watch out for pickpockets, but we never had any incidents or felt unsafe.

    DH set off for the conference and I walked back to the apartment, stopping at the Carrefours supermarket on the Rambla to get supplies. Mom and DH were of course rested and ready to go when I got to the apartment. After I had a short rest we set off to explore the neighbourhood. We walked through the Boqueria, and out on to the Rambla. I didn't want to do too much on our first day in Barcelona, just get a feel for the atmosphere of the city. Throughout the trip I tried to balance an awareness of the physical limitations of my travelling companions with their desire to see everything. So we just walked slowly, stopping to investigate an old church whose name I've forgotten, and a plaza which held some of the "giants" which appear in festivals in the city - large effigies of men and women dressed in traditional costumes. We had dinner in a large, rather touristy restaurant called Poma, where we had soup and sampled a variety of tapas. They actually enjoyed the meal, but were horrified that we were charged for water.

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    I am loving your trip report and await your next installment. Like you I have been to Paris many times, but never to Barcelona,, will be visiting it for first time this summer, so your report is very timely for me! Sounds like a great trip so far ,nice to know anyone can enjoy travel if they just slow the pace down.

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    yes, lovely. i wish that we'd stayed somewhere that central when we were in Barcelona. our hotel was near the plaza espanya and we ended up walking miles.

    keep it coming!

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    justineparis, Barcelona has a very different feel to Paris, but I'm sure you'll love it.

    Annhig, we wouldn't have chosen this location on our own, but it was really good for keeping the seniors entertained without too much effort.

    The next day, DH left early for his meeting, the rest of us had a leisurely breakfast in the apartment, then set off. As we walked out the door, there was a line of school children going by, all holding sprigs of little white flowers. As we walked further on to Hospital street, we realized there was a festival going on. The street was crowded with people and lined with vendors selling various herbs, flowers, honey, scented candles etc. One of the vendors told me it was the Fiesta of Sant Ponç, who I found out later is the patron saint of herbalists and beekeepers. It was very colourful and fun to wander around for a while. 

    Then we found a cab and headed to the Sagrada Familia cathedral, which for me is a highlight of Barcelona. I had been there about four or five years earlier so I was interested to see the progress in the construction since then. We probably arrived around noon, and there was not much of a line at that time. As soon as we entered, a young woman noticed the canes (and white hair) and asked if we needed assistance. I gratefully accepted the offer of a wheelchair for my Mom. We also got the audio guides, and spent the next few hours wandering around the interior and exterior of the amazing masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi. DD and my mom were overwhelmed by it all and seeing their reaction made it more special for me. 

    I had one scary moment pushing the wheelchair down the ramp which leads to the museum under the cathedral. I didn't realize how steep the ramp was and I had a hard time controlling the wheelchair on the curve. Luckily, as we picked up speed a strong German tourist noticed my plight and helped me slow it down before we crashed into the wall.

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    I have loved reading this story and the responses and I am about to write a similar story but my travels with my elderly mother are through Thailand and Bali as well as within Australia. Asia poses similar and different challenges for elderly travelers but the best thing is that they are so respected by Asia people.

    My question is about your link to the Barcelona apt. I checked out the bathroom and noted it is a high bathtub with shower hose. I avoid high bathtubs because my mum can't climb in and out and insist on walk in showers only. Did you find a way around this climbing into bath tubs challenge?

    Also thanks for Barcelona apt link. I would love to have your Marais apt link. Cheers

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    Hi ruby, you're right, the bathtub was a bit of an issue. My mom is able to climb in but very afraid of falling, so I offered to help her in and out every day, but she likes to do things independently. Not ideal, though.

    The apartment in the Marais only has one bedroom, although the sofa bed is very comfortable. It also has a high bathtub, unfortunately. Here's the link:

    With that website you deal directly with the owner rather than an agency, but that owner has been great to deal with.

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    I really need to finish off this trip report, so I'll try to condense the rest of our stay.

    I tried to choose one site for us to visit each day, allowing time for naps in the afternoon and leisurely strolls on the Rambla later on. The day after the Sagrada Familia we walked to the Palau Guell. I had been to Gaudi's Casa Battlo and Pedrera before but the Palau Guell was new to me and within walking distance. Again we were approached at the entrance by an official who offered a wheelchair and took us in through the exut door to get us our tickets. He explained that not all of the building was wheelchair accessible and the elevator was very small so my mom had to go with the official on her own while DD and I climbed the stairs. He told us that they because my mom could not get into the basement or on to the roof with the wheelchair, they would let her see an additional part of the building where the general public was not allowed. So she got a private tour of the dining room, and loved the extra attention.

    The Palau Guell was one of Guadi's earlier works, so not as elaborate as his later buildings but still very interesting. The chimneys on the roof were the most fun for me, similar to the Casa Mila roof.

    When we left the Palau, we wandered back on to the Rambla, and looked for a place to sit for a rest. We walked past several outdoor restaurants, knowing these touristy spots would be very suspect, when we spotted a familiar sign - the big M! I don't eat fast food except when I'm with my 7 year old grandson, but the Macdonald's restaurant had an inviting outdoor table available, and we had chicken wrap sandwiches which were actually quite good. I told the ladies they were sworn to secrecy - no one should ever find out we ate at Macdonald's in Spain! I did find us some nice gelatos nearby for dessert.

    I thought it would be time to head back to the apartment for a nap, but the ladies were refreshed and wanted to explore further, so after lunch we headed towards the port. We walked as far as the Columbus monument, then spotted a horse drawn carriage, which gave us a chance to rest. The driver of the carriage did not speak English but I was able to translate the limited information he provided on our tthe Gothic quarter back down to the harbour. We took a cab back to the apartment.

    The next day was Saturday. We went by taxi to the Picasso museum, which we all enjoyed. Then walked a bit in the Gothic quarter. We found a little artisanal market with all kinds of handmade crafts. DH came home early from the conference. The ladies were a bit tired so DH and I went for a walk by ourselves. There was a huge demonstration going on in Catalunya Square, at least we assumed it was a demonstration as there were placards and trade union signs, but there was also a lot of singing and dancing and all very good natured.

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    On Sunday we all (including DH whose conference was finally over) went to the cathedral to see the Sardana dancers in the square in front of the cathedral. I learned about the Sardana dancers through reading a post on this forum. We arrived early so we were able to go into the cathedral and attend a bit of the mass, although we couldn't understand anything of course. It was lovely to see the dancers of all different ages doing the traditional steps, just ordinary people joining in with others who looked as if they might have been professionally trained.

    We had a less than memorable lunch in one of the restaurants near the square, then walked back to the apartment through the narrow streets of the Gothic quarter. I had thought we wouuld need a cab but the senior ladies kept surprising me with their energy, enthusiasm and stamina. On the way, mom sat for a while on her stool in the Sant Jaume square in front of the Generalitat, while DD and I checked out a little jewellery store. She was amused that several people asked her for directions as she sat there.

    That evening we had tickets, purchased online, to a Flamenco Gala at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, part of a Catalan festival being celebrated that month. We got dressed up and took a cab there. It was nice to be able to see the spectacular theatre and enjoy the show at the same time. I know Barcelona is not known for flamenco but for us these dancers were quite impressive, especially since Mom and DD had never seen real live flamenco before. A wonderful evening!

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    So I have two more days in Barcelona to account for. On Tuesday, we rented a car from Europcar on Gran Via, which was a good place to start from, as the street leads straight on to the highway, so no worries driving through the city. Our plan was initially a day trip to Girona. We headed north on the C-32 which is a toll-road for a while, then veered off onto the smaller highway which hugs the coastline, stopping to visit some of the interesting small towns along the way. We had a good map and used the Eyewitness guide to choose towns to visit.

    We had a picnic lunch in a park overlooking the port in Arenys de Mar, then headed to Blanes to visit their botanical gardens, recommended by the guidebook, since both Mom and DD love gardens. We got a bit lost in the town, but found a tourist information office housed in a local library. The gardens turned out to be well worth the visit. The Marimurtra gardens are quite extensive, situated on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, so the blue water provides a beautiful backdrop to the lush vegetation, and breathtaking views over the cliffs. The hillside paths looked daunting, but we were offered not one, but two electric(!) wheelchairs, so the visit proved to be an adventure, as neither lady had ever used an electric wheelchair before. They had fun learning how to navigate the paths, and teaching my mom to let go in order to stop, rather than pressing harder on the lever when she wanted to brake, provided some hair-raising moments. If you've seen Betty White's "Off their Rockers", you have an idea of the scene.

    After Blanes we continued as far as Tossa de Mar, which was a lovely place to end the day, as we had by then decided that we would not make it to Girona. We had dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront which had great sangria, then headed back to Barcelona.

    Our last day in the city, we returned the rental car, then spent the day doing some gift shopping in the Gothic quarter. This was the only day when my mom showed signs of fatigue and asked to go back to the apartment for a rest. DH was already gearing up for his return to work mode and wanted to work on his computer, so DH and Mom stayed in for the afternoon while DD and I shopped. We had dinner in the little restaurant just below the apartment, then turned in early for our 7.30am flight. Oh, the agent came that evening to return our deposit as we were leaving at 5.00am. (The owner of the apartment in Paris is a more trusting soul - he did not ask for a deposit, just told us to leave the keys in the mailbox on the way out)

    DD flew home via New York, while our connection was in Paris, so it was hard to leave her by herself at the airport, but all went well and she made it home without incident. After being very careful with our possessions throughout the trip, I managed to leave my passport at security in BCN airport, and Mom left her purse in a washroom in CDG, but on both occasions, after initial panic, the items were later recovered intact. Kudos to airport staff.

    So that was it. A different trip from the trips my husband and I do on our own, but having the ladies along proved to be fun. We travelled at a more relaxed pace, and didn't worry about trying to see or do everything, but we enjoyed all the places we visited. Things really went better than I expected, and the trip accomplished the objective of cheering up my Mom. She seems a lot less depressed and is still enjoying looking at the pictures we took and reminiscing about the trip. Now she's asking; "Where are we going on our next trip?"

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    Thanks for posting rest of trip,, what a sucess! The apartment in Paris looks like the sofa bed was a "futon" those are pretty comfy, at least compared to most spring loaded hide a beds!
    Looking forward to Barcelona!

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