Living Like a Traveler: Wisdom for Aging Well

One of the most common items on the bucket lists of baby boomers and retirees is traveling and enjoying adventure with the people they love. The traveler for many is a symbol of life well lived, freedom, independence, enjoyment, and life-long learning. At the heart of these characteristics is a foundation of healthy behaviors that support the traveler along the way. In fact, the traveler’s wisdom can teach us a great deal about wellness and aging. Whether you are an aging adult or helping care for an aging parent, here are 10 insights from the road to help you on your elder care journey:

Caring for the Body

When we travel, we are intimately reacquainted with how much we rely on our bodies every day. We rely on them to carry us from point A to point B and our health, wellness, and vitality are the foundation for our travels. Aging well is really about building that foundation of health that will allow us to go where we want and continue to do the things we love in safety and freedom. Our biggest fear as a society is that we will “die before we die”. We want longevity, but we don’t want to grow old and lose our independence or ability to enjoy life. When we treat our bodies as the mode by which we travel, we are better able to see the connection between the way we live our lives now and the quality of life we want to have in the future.

Eat for Your Life

Let’s be honest, at least half of travel is about the food. Travel really changes our relationship to food. We try new things, we nourish ourselves with the journey in mind, we eat when we want to eat and not just because it’s on the schedule and we are more intentional about what we put in our bodies and how it makes us feel. Nourishing ourselves with a balanced diet that is appropriate to the needs of our age is key to decreasing the risk of injury and chronic disease while building an adaptable, strong body.

The Gift of Walking

Hand in hand with eating is exercise and using our bodies. The traveler packs good comfortable shoes because they know they will do more walking on their trip than any other time, but they also know that the body is made to walk. In fact, there is no single thing that has more of a positive impact on our health and wellness than walking. Walking just 30 (non-consecutive) minutes a day dramatically reduces the risk of diseases and chronic illnesses that make up the most common and costly causes of death in the United States. We tend to overcomplicate our exercise plans and goals, but walking is the simple prescription that we can write ourselves every day. 

Learn Something New

Our minds work much like cities and the neural pathways that our thoughts travel are the roads that connect all the traffic in our minds. Thoughts that we have on a regular basis create “ruts in the road”, in our well-traveled synapses. When we choose to be a beginner at something, though it may feel uncomfortable, we are actually doing our minds a favor. Our brains are able to adapt and change throughout our lifetimes. This is known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. We create new synapses when we learn something new which helps keep our minds active and diversified. While we may want to stick to activities or situations that we have mastered over the years, the traveler knows that moments of growth and learning happen when we step just outside of our comfort zone and push ourselves to be a beginner.

Live in the Moment & Focus on the Positive

Much of our life is spent ruminating about the past or contemplating the future and very little time is spent in the present moment. These activities of fortune telling or gazing into the past can create a toxic cocktail of negativity such as regret, fear, and anxiety. The traveler knows that what we chose to focus on really shapes our experience of the trip. Practicing gratitude as we age can really help us to stay in the present moment and focus on the positive aspects of our lives.

Travel Together

While we normally think of our own wellness as being impacted by us individually, our community has a huge impact on our wellness and well-being at every age. The traveler knows that who we travel with changes the dynamic of the trip dramatically. When we surround ourselves with people who have the same wellness values and goals, we are encouraged and positively influenced by them. Isolation can put wellness at risk especially as we age. It is crucial to remain connected and engaged with others who will help you live your best.

Make an Emergency Plan

When traveling in a group it is common to designate a place to meet up if you should become separated. We create plans not because we anticipate the worst will happen, but so we will be prepared should we need to act on someone else’s behalf or need help ourselves. It is also important to have an emergency plan in case a member of your party needs care. While studies show that most people value and intend on creating an elder care plan along with end-of-life wishes, few people are having those conversations with family before a medical event. Consider creating a single point of reference for medical information such as your medical insurance information, allergies, diagnosis, medications & dosages, and emergency contacts.

Documents Please

We would not even consider trying to travel abroad without first getting our passport and visa documentation up-to-date and ready. It is equally important to prepare your documents before embarking into “elderhood”. Make sure that you create advance directives including a plan for your Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA), Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST Form), and your living will. This will allow you and your family to rest assured that they will have current documentation if and when they need it. This makes emergencies much less constrictive and full of anxiety.

Travel Insurance: Paying for Long-Term Care

How many times have you skipped on the travel insurance thinking it was a waste time and money? Many people have the same sentiments about purchasing long-term care insurance. So, will we really need it? According to LongTermCare.gov, someone turning age 65 today has almost a 70% chance of needing some type of long-term care services and support in their remaining years. What is striking is 69% of people use long-term care services of some kind for an average of 3 years. If you personally are lucky enough to not need assistance, your spouse still may. One of the great myths is that Medicare pays for long-term care, and the truth is that long-term care costs are not covered. So, if there was a 70% chance that you were going to need your travel insurance, I think the seasoned traveler would definitely invest in the insurance to help cover those out-of-pocket expenses.   

Know Where You’re Going

When we travel, we choose to plan out our trip not because we pretend to know everything that will happen to us along the journey, but because it is our journey. Our wishes and choices play a part in shaping the road we travel and the type of experience we have. Of course we have to remain flexible, but thinking ahead and having a plan gives us greater flexibility and reduces stress. When it comes to elder care planning, many people do not make plans for the journey simply because they don’t know what is going to happen or what to expect. You can certainly travel this way, but it almost always limits your choices and is more expensive to be reactive instead of proactive. We recommend using a seasoned travel guide, in the case of elder care, a Geriatric Care Manager. As experts in the care of aging adults, they are able to provide the proactive planning, care coordination, and information you and your family need to make informed decisions and be prepared as you age.

Pack Light

Packing rule number one is if doesn’t have a purpose, then it doesn’t make it into the bag. Space is limited and there are souvenirs to be purchased! The traveler knows that letting go of unnecessary items makes the load much more manageable. For aging baby boomers, it may be necessary to let go of unnecessary fear, negative connotations, outdated stereotypes, and unwanted expectations around aging. The mental load that we carry can have an impact on our health and quality of life. What we choose to think and how we respond is infinitely more important than the circumstances we encounter in our lives. Luckily, we get to choose what thoughts and experiences we will take with us and what we will leave behind. The longer the journey, the lighter the load. 

Published on May 28, 2014.