November 9, 2012 7:19 pm

The mother of all trips down under

Travelling with an 84-year-old who needs at the least a walking stick, and very often a walking frame, is a whole new experience
An illustration by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

Twelve thousand miles is a long way to travel when you’re 84. My mother had never visited Australia, and announced to me many months ago that she would like to do so one day. So, I said, when next I had occasion to visit the Antipodes, if she cared to buy herself a ticket, then of course she could accompany me. Naturally, I assumed that there was no way she would take me up on this. But she did.

The logistics of taking my mother along on a trip that was going to be at least half-business were complicated. For a start, she is my father’s primary carer so I would need to find a respite arrangement for him, somewhere that we felt happy with and where he was prepared to go. Only with this accomplished, itself no mean feat, was her flight booked.

Travelling with an 84-year-old who needs at the minimum a walking stick, and very often a walking frame, is a whole new travel experience. You can never, for example, be too far from a lavatory. I booked wheelchairs at every stage of the journey, because you suddenly realise how long the distances are around airports. Plus I got Cost Centre #2, who conveniently had a two-week half-term, to come and meet us a few days into our visit so that he could be on hand when I had to work.

But then we are the sandwich generation, aren’t we – with dependent children and parents who need us too. I don’t recall my own mother ever being in such a position. Her parents passed away long before they reached the age she is now, and my sisters and I all left home very promptly. I was a homeowner before I reached the age that CC#1 is now, but I don’t see him leaving home any time soon, not with mortgages as scarce as they are and a student loan to follow him around when he graduates. I guess I will be in the middle of the sandwich for a while yet.

The real killer of being on tour with my mother was the hand luggage. Convinced that she would become separated from her hold luggage, she packed several changes of clothes and two weeks’ worth of prescription medicine in it. Unsurprisingly, these were all minutely examined in security at Heathrow. When we changed aeroplanes in Singapore, I got her an apple juice as we waited in the lounge, but I should have watched her more closely. Next thing I knew it was being confiscated as we went through security. She’d had a few sips and then squirrelled it away. Why do that? Because someone who was born in 1928 never knows where the next apple juice is coming from. On the Perth-Melbourne leg of the journey she decided to take out her tapestry and her scissors were seized and thrown away.

Melbourne-Sydney saw the end of a small aerosol of hairspray. Why on earth did she think she might need hairspray on a one-hour flight? On the trip home, we banned her from having any hand luggage at all.

But it was worth it. I am glad I was there when she first caught sight of an Australian jacaranda tree in flower. And when she met my niece, whom she has never seen. I was moved by the tears in her eyes when she was able to visit a friend she had not seen for 40 years. And of course it was lovely to realise how contented she was that she didn’t have to plan any meals, worry about laundry or do any shopping other than for her own pleasure.

Towards the end of our visit I asked her if she was bored yet. No, she said, not at all. Funnily enough, neither was I. I watched her travel around, never complaining, taking delight in everything, chatting to strangers whenever I parked her somewhere while I went for a run. She took pleasure in so much, from the native plants in the Botanical Gardens to the ferry ride to Taronga Park Zoo. (This last was necessary as she was distressed at not having seen a kangaroo. I had to explain they don’t usually hang out in city centres.) Maybe it has taken a 12,000-mile trip for me to really appreciate my mother. Thank goodness we went.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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