Not much time left: The travellers hit hardest by the pandemic

The group of travellers the pandemic has hit the hardest is those who have the least travelling years left.

Having to put plans on hold for two years has been depressing for everyone, even as we've understood why it has been necessary. The reality is we'll probably have to live with surges of infection for some time, although hopefully we'll have more tools to manage them.

That means (sigh) the possibility of interrupted travel will be with us for a while. For the elderly, this also means travel will bring potential dangers for a while to come. Many will choose to stay home.

Others might think, life is too short, let's go. After all, YOLO (you only live once).

Two years is a long time when you're over 70. It's really precious when you're over 80. For those few active and vital people who travel well into their 80s and even beyond, it can be the difference between being well enough to get around unaided and needing assistance, which changes the nature of travel.

I remember taking a cruise several years ago and sharing a breakfast table with an impish 91-year-old woman who told me she was constantly cruising. She liked change, new horizons. A tiny bundle of energy, she didn't like being characterised as "old". She knew she mightn't have much time left but she was going to live the hell out of what she had.

She possibly isn't with us now, and I wonder if COVID would have curtailed her fun.

My own lovely mother, who came with me to the Maldives when she was in her 80s and jumped on and off seaplanes with the energy of someone decades younger, has been mostly limited to home in the past year. She'd love to go some place where it's warmer, to Fiji perhaps? But Omicron means that's on hold for a little longer. It, not age, has slowed her down. But she's stoic about it, as is her generation. They've been through worse.

Most Australians have built travel into their plans for retirement. People have expectations of living longer and healthier lives and budget for those halcyon days. In fact, cashed-up and time-rich retirees, who often travel outside of peak seasons, have been the backbone of Australian tourism, especially in down times.

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Many Baby Boomer seniors were on the hippie trail when they were younger, and lived wilder, more adventurous lives than their Gen X and Millennial children. They're the coolest generation of grandparents ever. They never intended to stop exploring.

But then the unexpected happened. International borders slammed shut. Cruise ships were banned. Even grey nomads in their motorhomes found holiday parks from Yass to the Sunshine Coast closed. State borders were impenetrable for those with no fixed address.

There's also the small but growing numbers of older Australians who live a part-time expat life in more affordable places such as Cambodia, or even Italy, where the health insurance is reciprocal and houses are a fraction of the price of those in urban Australia. I have friends doing the latter now, and I'm envious, but the pandemic complicated these kinds of long-term travel plans too. The world's borders may take a long time to be as fluid for Australians as they were pre-2020.

The saddest aspect of the pandemic for me has been the way it has stripped bare the ageism in our society. Often, the elderly have seemed dispensable in grim public discussions about such things as who is worthy of an ICU bed if they get ill with COVID. Ages of the departed are announced in the daily tolls as if it's somehow all right that a person of 80 dies 15 years and a lot of living sooner than they might have otherwise.

Over 60? You're now "elderly" according to health officials, which might come as quite a shock to many.

Some understandably take umbrage at being so readily categorised and dismissed. Seniors don't think they are seniors and marketers would do well not to treat them that way.

Mountaineer Annie Smith Peck was still climbing mountains in her 80s. Dame Freya Stark led an expedition to Afghanistan at 75. The legendary oceanographer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle is still exploring and lecturing at 86. David Attenborough … well, he's 95.

Travelling actively and with curiosity is one way to stay mentally youthful. I have a friend in his mid-70s who just left for a few months of solo travel in places he's never been.

He's staying in youth hostels.

lee.tulloch@traveller.com.au

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