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Enjoying Your Elderly Visitors Overseas

Family visits—often extended ones— are a common occurrence in the Foreign Service. Home leave is one thing, but to have your loved ones visit you at post, in your own home, and to be able to show them the local sights is a special experience for both visitors and hosts. However, it can also be a lot of work, especially when your visitors are elderly parents or grandparents.

My grandmother is now in her 90s, and has been regularly visiting me at post for the last twenty-plus years. As she ages, I have learned a few things along the way.

Number one: a visit from an elderly relative is simply going to be major project. Understand that you will not be getting more than basic household tasks done during the visit. Finish (or arrange to shelve) any major personal or work projects before your visitors arrive.

Work schedules may also need to change. If it is the employed spouse’s parents or relatives that are visiting (and ideally, even when it isn’t), that person should definitely take at least some time off from work to spend time with an to help care for relatively high-maintenance visitors.

Plan, plan, plan. Try to get a couple of meals into the freezer. Catch up on laundry. Stock up on groceries. Check with your guest before arrival to find out what their food preferences are so that you can buy things they like to eat, and lay off things they might not be able to eat (spicy foods, anything with seeds, food that is too hard to chew or cut up).

Unless your visitor is an unusually adventurous eater, this is probably not the time to try out new restaurants. Go to places that you know have some “plain” or familiar foods on offer, and try to simplify the ordering process. Even the sharpest older person is simply not going to be able to assimilate new information as quickly or as willingly as he or she previously did, especially when you throw jet lag and a foreign language into the mix. When translating the menu, offering them two or three choices is probably plenty. Don’t simply ask “What would you like to drink.” Look at the menu and ask “Would you like Coke, lemonade or water?” “Would you like a green salad or vegetable soup?” “Here are two local dishes I think you should try: would you like the Wiener schnitzel or the fried cheese?” It sounds a little patronizing, and of course it depends on the individual, but I know that my grandmother has always appreciated the simplification.

Before the visit, communicate to your visitor or to their caregiver the need to bring all necessary medications plus a few days to spare in case of travel delays. Make sure they understand that medication should be stored in their carry-on luggage. Put your own medications away so they don’t get taken by mistake! Suggest to your visitor that they put their medications in the same place they do at home—beside the coffee maker for example—so that they don’t forget to take them (and so that you can discreetly make sure that they have).

Elderly people are more susceptible to diseases, may take longer to recover from them; and are at greater risk for complications. For those reasons it is especially important to make sure they understand the basic health precautions at post: not drinking or brushing teeth with water from the tap being a frequent example. Put a bottle of clean water in the guest bathroom with a note reminding them not to use the tap water. Anywhere in the world, frequent hand-washing during and after sightseeing is also a good idea for any visitor, but especially for the elderly. Carry hand-sanitizer with you to offer when there is no hand-washing facility available.

Speaking of health, make sure that your visitor has medical evacuation insurance before they leave in case of emergency. The medical unit at post should be able to provide some information about companies and plans, or contact the Family Liaison Office. Also, make sure that you have a list of current medications in case your visitor has an accident of some kind and is unable to answer questions. (When my grandmother visits, I carry a list of her medications provided on my cell phone.)

Remember that places that you would ordinarily go without thinking twice about logistics may be much more difficult with an elderly visitor. Double-check the route before leaving, and make sure there is not a great deal of walking or stairs involved. If you can use public transportation at post, remember that making connections may not work very well with a slow person. It may be worth it to take a longer route if makes it possible to sit in one place the entire way. If you drive, find out about parking ahead of time, or bring someone along who can be dropped off at the door with the elderly person while you go park the car (they will not want to be dropped off alone.) Use taxis or hired drivers if necessary.

At museums and other sights, call or check websites for information about handicapped accessibility. Reserve a wheelchair whenever possible—it’s just much more enjoyable even for a relatively mobile elderly person in a museum to be able to relax in a wheelchair and focus on the artwork instead of their aching knees or back. Consider bringing a walker or wheelchair with you to post—I bought a sturdy “shopping” walker for $15 at the thrift store to put in my HHE, and my grandmother was happy to use it on a recent visit. A folding cane/seat is another option. And don’t try to travel around all day. Four or five hours of sightseeing is probably more than enough for an elderly person—even if they won’t admit it!

Remember that your visitor is probably more interested in spending time with you and your family than visiting every “must-see” sight on the local list. Fairly mundane activities may be interesting to them. My grandmother always enjoys going to the local grocery store, for example, and seeing all the different foods. On her last visit to me here in Vienna, she also quite enjoyed a trip to the local thrift store! In both cases, these were easy trips and she could use the shopping cart as a walker. As a lifelong gardener with an interest in the local flora, she has always been happy to be pushed around a botanical garden or city park in a wheelchair, as well.

Older men like to carry a lot of cash around. Older women tend to carry easily stolen purses or leave them unzipped. Pickpockets know all of this. Explain to your visitor that it is not necessary to carry around department store credit cards, etc. while they are visiting you. Help them assemble a small wallet with just the essentials. Check to make sure they are not carrying their original passport unless it is necessary for access to an embassy building or event—a photocopy should suffice for any other purpose.

If your visitor is hard of hearing, you will want to do any explaining or conveying of information in the car or at home beforehand, since at the site, crowds may make hearing difficult. If an audio tour is available, definitely spring for it. The adjustable handheld speaker will likely be much easier for your guest to understand than a guide will be. You may also want to figure out how to put closed captioning on your own television so you don’t have to turn it up to an annoying level.

Your visitors may appreciate your help in remembering where they have been and what they saw on their visit. One handy way to do this is to collect brochures or books from sights as a memory aid. If they use the internet, you can send them a list of links to the things you saw and when. You may also want to give them a travel book—preferably one with pictures—in which you can circle items or make notes for them. Or take photos and make a slide show or photo album with detailed captions.

Take care of yourself. Find ways to give yourself and your visitor a break. Don’t be shy about asking your spouse or older children to occupy your visitor for a short time, with a quick trip out or a project in the home. Some elderly people find it hard to admit that they just can’t keep going all day the way they used to. You may have to employ a strategy commonly used with young children: turn on the TV to give them a handy excuse to catnap!

Finally, be patient, take deep breaths when necessary, and make the most of your time with your elderly relative. Consider it all to be a gift. It may not be the most relaxing visit you will have during your time overseas, but it will likely be the one most appreciated by your visitors!

Contributed by an experienced Foreign Service spouse.

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