Travels with my dad: Hongkonger's dos and don'ts for trips with elderly

Having taken his disabled father to more than 50 countries, Wong Wing-wai last year published a book on travelling with the elderly.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 11:05am

When Wong Wing-wai's father suffered a stroke in 1998 that left him reliant on crutches and a wheelchair, it was hard for the son to watch. Knowing his father was sinking into depression, the junior Wong, then just a first-year student in university, vowed to do something to cheer his father, who had just retired.

An only son, Wong decided to take his parents on trips around the world whenever he could. In the 17 years since, he has travelled to more than 50 countries with his parents, who both have disabilities (his mother became blind in one eye because of macular degeneration).

"After developing disabilities, my parents were like prisoners in their own home," says Wong, 37, who now runs his own advertising company. "Other than going to the hospital for check-ups , they'd just be at home. So as soon as I started working, I took them travelling."

The family go abroad three to four times a year. Besides visiting tourist hotspots in Britain, Germany and the United States, their globetrotting has taken them to Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Slovakia in eastern Europe. Wong's parents particularly enjoyed train journeys, and loved the 10-day trip they took across Spain, from Barcelona to Seville and Madrid, to Portugal.

Wong learned so much about the art of travelling with the elderly that he published a guide last year - Travel Around the World at 80.

From his experience, Wong says, old folks often prefer travelling on trains to flying: "They feel safer on the ground. The gentle rocking along tracks also help them sleep, and they enjoy the views."

Europe's well-developed railway network presents many choices, and often offer special packages for the elderly such as a half-priced fare from Barcelona to Seville. The standard of service is good and toilets are more spacious, he adds.

But anyone pondering trips with elderly relatives should first consider their interests and personalities, Wong says.

"Some elderly people just want to stay at home and watch TV, so buy them a big TV and a DVD player. For those who like to travel, you have to understand their health needs. Elderly people have to use the toilet often, so whether on plane or train, it's better to book seats close by. You should also check online or with the hotel staff about how many flights of stairs there are so that you can plan the trip better."

Wong's parents used to cope well with nine-hour flights but over the past few years, they can only handle being cooped up in a plane for six hours at most. So Wong now works in stopovers in cities like Dubai or Beijing en route to other destinations.

Cruises are usually popular with the elderly, who appreciate the leisurely pace.

"Some people think life aboard a ship would be boring. But that's far from the case as there are facilities like swimming pools, gyms, gaming tables, mini golf links and all kinds of performances."

But he advises families to choose routes in calmer seas such as the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic, which can get very choppy.

After developing disabilities, my parents were like prisoners in their own home
Wong Wing-Wai

Wong also suggests the itinerary should consider that many older folks prefer daytime activities. His parents, for example, could not see well at night and got little out of excursions to Singapore's night zoo and glow worm watching in New Zealand.

Part-time lecturer Victor Yuen Chi-yan also enjoys travelling with his parents, especially his mother, a sprightly 60-year-old yoga teacher.

The 32-year-old, who teaches heritage conservation at the Open University, has visited more 10 countries with his mother in the past decade, including India, Italy, Iran and Russia.

They prefer independent travel, putting up in hostels and, more recently, private homes offered through Airbnb, to save costs.

"We went to Cambodia with a tour group eight years ago, but my mum has since fallen in love with travelling on our own as she can take in much more," Yuen says, recalling how she enjoyed trying out local cheeses and foods at a farmers' market in Perugia on their visit to Italy.

Regular trips with his mother have also changed his attitude towards travel.

"When I was in university, I travelled on my own to a lot of places. Like many young people, I was eager to visit all the places on the itinerary and did not want to miss anything. But when going with an elderly companion you have to set aside this mentality, and I learned to be content with going to fewer places as my mother can't walk long distances."

Of course, they had to put up with each other's temperaments and foibles, too - her badgering and his poor navigation skills, for example.

There was leeway for individual diversions; when too tired to explore some historical sites, his mother could sit down and enjoy an ice cream while he checked out the place.

Yuen has also discovered some unexpected advantages to travelling with an elderly companion.

"It's easier for me to meet girls because they think I am a good son and are impressed by my gentlemanly behaviour. It's also easier to get a lift when there's an elderly person waiting on the road."

Besides, he enjoys spending quality time with his mother on their travels.

"Although I live with my parents, I seldom get the chance to talk to them at home as I work late on weekdays and am busy with campaigns on heritage conservation at weekends. But on travels, we spend a lot of time together."

Wong feels the same way: "I don't live with my parents. On travels, we are together all the time. My dad also gets a lot happier after all the travels."