Older Traveler, Limited Mobility, Abroad Aboard a Barge at 79–What We Learn

Barge Canal Burgundy

79-year-old barge traveler gains strength and confidence shortly after broken-hip surgery

A gray-haired woman, bent over her walker, was moving somewhat awkwardly towards our group and the private bus that was taking us to the Gare de Lyon in Paris. We would then board the TJV for a barge trip in Burgundy.  Although 99-year-old, Sr. Advisor R has said “DON’T ASSUME” countless times, I did assume this woman wasn’t traveling on our barge. WRONG!

Initially I didn’t know her age, nor that she was accompanied by a sister–11 years younger. While I do know that affect influences our first impression of people and while I’ve been trained as a counselor to be objective and nonjudgmental, barge travel isn’t luxury liner travel. It involves a degree of mobility–at minimum navigating steps to get to the bedrooms and bathrooms below deck, and often walking ladder-like steps with railings and a gangplank to get from the barge to often  unmanicured terrain–all this before reaching the point of interest.

In  six days I watched a 79-year-old, recovering from surgery and physical therapy for a cracked femur–with walker, cane and resolve–gain confidence, strength and joie de vivre as the barge gently and steadily navigated the canals. She said she’d wanted to do this trip for years but couldn’t find anyone to go with her. With the “go-ahead” from her doctor, she was going. I silently wondered how desperate–or passionate–she was to make the trip at this precise time in her life.

The barge “boss” as she called herself (she was our leader, not the barge captain) was sensitive to the woman’s needs–as was the sister. Initially this woman’s mobility was “ify.” Challenges: keeping pace with the group, transitioning from land to the barge’s gangplank and vice versa, not to mention going down the stairs to the bedrooms or hiking At the Chateauwith walker up a long drive to visit a chateau on day 2 of the trip (photo left). And then there was the weather: light rain at times meant a wet barge deck…slippery.

What evolved over the week was testimony to “don’t assume” and the limitations we may inadvertently, subconsciously, unconsciously place on older people. As our small group (9  individuals and couples who didn’t know each other previously) coalesced and indeed  became a group, and as the physical part of the trip became routine, this woman gained strength, endurance and confidence. Indeed she and I discussed this and I watched it, so I know it’s true.

She began to shed her walker for a cane on days 3 and 4, except when long walks were scheduled. And at that point she used only the hand rail to navigate the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms. (Doing that maneuver with cane in hand was difficult and time-consuming.) And in the crowded, busy Paris train station on day 6 at the end of our trip, a wheelchair was a graciously accepted alternative as she didn’t want to hold up the group.

She had progressed from a person concerned with her challenges to someone who didn’t want to inconvenience the group and joined in all the planned activities. She mentioned that her physical therapy prescription had run its course at the rehab center and she had requested more, but insurance wouldn’t cover it. That said, she concluded the physical exercise this trip necessitated, was no doubt the best physical therapy she could get.

This senior citizen was not a super-remarkable older person. She was a never-married, independent, retired college professor who lived alone with her dog. She wanted to do this trip. With no one to stop her or convince her otherwise, and a sister who agreed to go with her, the result speaks for itself.

Which brings us back to “Don’t Assume.” And reminds us to ask ourselves: Are we over protective?  Are our assumptions about older people’s abilities/capabilities and/or what’s good for them unnecessarily limiting? Do we make decisions based on what’s easier for us, makes us feel easier, or what’s best for them?

Barge Canal-Burgundy

Barge Canal from barge’s window

We do have our work cut out for us, don’t we?