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Traveling with elderly mom and dad can be a window to the past, present

Road trips with older parents can help adult children and sometimes their own kids learn about what shaped their folks, and themselves. Or just help catch up on the present day.

August 28, 2010
(Blair Thornley / For The…)

For the last four summers, 85-year-old Patty Fleming has clambered into a silver Buick Regal with her three 50-something daughters and hit the interstate for a weeklong vacation.

"OK, girls," she says when the chatter gets too frenetic, "I'm turning off my hearing aid. You can talk about me as much as you want." Then she settles down with a book. After she rests a while, she announces, "Stop talking about me now," and turns the hearing aid back on, says Pam Rimar, her youngest daughter.

"We have a great time. Husbands and kids stay home, we all catch up, and we have lots of one-on-one time with Mom," says Rimar, an Irvine resident. "We have fun, and so does she."

The thought of vacationing with an elderly parent can send shivers down the spines of adult children. Many who try it, however, say the practice brings unexpected pleasure — and an opportunity to move beyond the generation gap that marked their relationship when they were young.

When my mom and dad were in their 80s, I took them on several trips "home" — they were from Louisville, Ky., and we lived in California, where I was born. We all enjoyed those journeys, even when their health became rocky. They relished seeing old haunts and visiting longtime friends; I enjoyed hearing tales of their youth.

Such feelings are common, said USC psychologist Bob Knight.

"Reminiscence and life review are natural and helpful parts of adult development at many transition points, including our post-retirement years," said Knight, associate dean of the Davis School of Gerontology.

"Traveling with parents to places that were important in their earlier lives can be important and meaningful for their life review and give the younger generations traveling with them insights into the ways that their parents' or grandparents' lives have shaped their own."

That was certainly true in my case. I mingled with relatives, listened to their Southern drawls and learned about customs that had seemed alien to me, a laid-back Southern California girl. People dressed up on Sunday morning to go to church, were polite to one another, expected to be addressed as "ma'am" and "sir" and loved to go to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and a favorite pastime for Louisville residents (be sure to pronounce it LOO-vul). At meals, it wasn't unusual to find black-eyed peas, okra and fried green tomatoes on the menu.

La Quinta resident Kevin Gallavan also had a journey of discovery when he started taking trips with his dad, Pat, after he lost his wife, Belle — Kevin's mother — in 2004. Kevin traveled with Pat, a San Bernardino resident who was then in his late 80s and early 90s, to Durango, Colo., where Pat grew up, and to a military reunion of his dad's World War II fighter-bomber group in Little Rock, Ark.

Kevin said his dad loved it. What's more, Kevin loved it too: "It was fun. He had great stories to tell. When we visited Colorado, he talked about how his dad had worked on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Steam Train. I learned a lot about his life when he was young."

Pat died earlier this summer, just short of his 95th birthday; during his eulogy Kevin reminisced about those trips. "They were highlights of my life," he said.

Annette Iversen, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, was hoping to achieve similar highlights when she planned a trip to Denmark this summer with her 82-year-old dad, Victor.

Her father immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was 2 years old and always wanted to go back. "The trip was two years in the planning," said Annette, who teaches at Chapman University in Orange.

"We said we'd all go; sadly, my mother died six years ago, before we made the trip."

Now Victor has a slow-growing form of cancer, and Annette said they decided not to wait any longer. "We want to do it while he's feeling good. My dad has a bittersweet attitude about it," she said. "He says, 'I won't be going back, so let's do it up right.'"

And that's exactly how they planned this summer's trip. Nine relatives would go; they'd stay two weeks and concentrate on three sections of Denmark.

Annette's 6-year-old son, Vale, would room with her dad. "They're best friends. My son is so excited he's going to be staying with Dad."

How did it go? I asked earlier this month, shortly after they returned.

"We had a fabulous time," she said. "We saw where my Dad was born, the church he was baptized in and the house where he lived. We stayed in a castle and climbed the highest steeple — my dad too."

Everyone was friendly, she said.

"At night we would sit outside and visit. An owl would swoop by, and there were bats in the sky. Everything was terrific, and my son was in heaven."

Geriatrician Evelyn Granieri said that including a younger generation, as the Iversens did, is a plus.

"It creates memories for your children and also offers them a role model," said Granieri, who is chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Columbia University College of Medicine.

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