The desperate motivations of senior travel

This recent New York Times piece highlights old age as a never-ending adventure, but there are far more desperate, fundamental reasons why elderly people are deciding they’d rather be abroad than at home.

Here are three less-discussed motivations for senior long-term travel (the first two are illustrated below by Lawrence Osborne‘s unflinching Bangkok Days):

To escape physical isolation–

He added that what Bangkok offered to the aging human was a culture of complete physicality. It was tactile, humans pressing against each other in healing heat: the massage, the bath, the foot therapy, the handjob, you name it. The physical isolation and sterility of Western life, its physical boredom, was unimaginable.

“There’s a reason we’re so neurotic and violent and unhappy. Especially as we get on a bit, no one ever touches us.”

To erase anonymity —

Farlo seemed to deflate a little. Did he really come here on a regular basis? No one recognized him. But then only money and youth get recognized. At a certain point, complete anonymity overtakes us, and people–not just women–look right through us as if we don’t exist.

We respond with instinctive bitterness to this loss of visibility, but we also recognize the first taste of our future extinction, and we accept it. There will be no reprieve from now on. But Bangkok is a city which in this instance does, after all, offer a brief reprieve. It comes via a simple gesture, which Farlo now executed. The invisible man raises a finger, one could call it the Finger of Assent, which indicates that after long prevarication and weighing up of the available options, he has decided to become financially available for the sexual act. This single gesture suddenly makes the anonymous man highly visible, and within a few seconds he has returned to the field of play upon which his antics, his desires, his neuroses, and his dubious tastes are all once again invested with the vitality, the fraudulent importance, of his youth. He finds himself returned to life, and his detestable anonymity evaporates all around him.

To die with dignity —

George Lundquist, 70, rocks gently in a wicker swing on his 2000 sq. ft. deck in Costa Rica. He looks directly into the webcam and tells us he built this house eight years ago. “I’ve been here ever since. I will never leave.” And he means it. Although he sells real estate to ex-pats, his sincerity is evident. At the end of his 10-minute video, he bares one of the root reasons why Costa Rica is his permanent home:

“I think the quality of death here is better than what you will find in the United States. I feel the doctors here are more involved and interested in my quality of life and my quality of death.”

With two houses already built on a former tobacco plantation (and ready to accommodate his future wheelchair), George isn’t much of a vagabond. He does, however, represent what might be a cousin of medical tourism: end-of-life travel. Not to be confused with the suicide tourism of Switzerland or Mexico, end-of-life travel seeks the ideal conditions and company for one’s final days, months, or years. This might be hospice care in Bangalore, a live-in nurse in Peru, or passing in one’s sleep on a beach in Nicaragua.

These motivations for senior travel are driven by pain, loneliness, and the prospect of a bleak future. They raise difficult questions. What does it say about our society when increasing numbers of our elders find the lifestyle and treatment abroad more desirable and affordable than the options at home?

Further, these motivations can’t be limited to the senior crowd. We younger travelers are quick to deny that we’re running away; we define our motivations as entrepreneurial, adrenaline-addicted, or enlightenment-seeking. But how often are we driven (at least in part) by similar feelings, and when will we start admitting it? If we keep silent about any part of what pushes us from home, how will life at home ever become bearable?

See also: Frank BuresWorld Hum interview with Lawrence Osborne.

Photo by Stephan Geyer via Flickr.

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Posted by | Comments (5)  | January 20, 2010
Category: Lifestyle Design, Senior Travel, Travel Writing

5 Responses to “The desperate motivations of senior travel”

  1. Joel Carillet Says:

    Excellent post, Brett. Thanks for alerting us to the article.

    I lived in a small community in Papua New Guinea for four of my teenage years and when I returned to the States it wasn’t easy. Among other things, I remember thinking that one day, when I was old, I might want to return to PNG to die. Why? Because life was not demarcated by the clock and the calendar (most people didn’t know how old they were, so there was no birthday angst), and there was real community. That’s not to romanticize a country and culture that has real problems, nor is it to devalue the health care opportunities in my home country. It’s just to say that I suspect, if I am one day dying in a nursing home or with tubes jutting out of my body, my mind may fall back to a village on the far side of the world, where people often died in simple huts, and didn’t even know how old they were.

  2. GypsyGirl Says:

    Well goodness- if that wasn’t a lot to chew though at once. My first reaction is I don’t blame those people for wanting to find a peaceful life where they feel like they belong. I’ll admit it, I travel for that reason! One of the most painful things to hear from friends/family or anyone is they feel stuck-last year put me personally in some strange dilemmas with such things. Recently I was reading up on Maslow’s hierarchy and the ERG Theory – all of it really gets you pondering how to create such an atmosphere where ever you happen to be…
    Often it makes me sad that there are a handful of my senior friends who live vicariously though the photos and letters that I send them.

  3. Rosalia Says:

    What a sad piece. Good work!

  4. David Says:

    That picture reminds me of the old 60’s movies.You remember classic movie Psycho.

  5. Cynthia Roderick Says:

    It was so wonderful to see some of my own dark private thoughts spoken by someone else… I’m retired and live alone in the suburbs…I just returned from Mexico… I’m going back as soon as I sell my house… I felt so very alive there and met such wonderful people … I didn’t feel like a fifth wheel for the first time in a long time… I just felt like another human being…