Palm trees swayed in the breeze, the sound of waves were crashing on the beach, and beautiful Hawaiian girls danced as they dispensed colorful leis. All eyes that had the ability to focus were looking at the giant TV screen and the delightful scene as they enjoyed their armchair travel to Honolulu. Shirley was dressed for the occasion in her coconut bra. She wheeled around in her wheelchair as she modeled her vacation wear. Hazel had on a summer shirt patterned with palm trees and her socks were embossed with flamingos. Others may have been there in their “Geri chairs” with quilts and blankets so as to keep their body warm but in their minds they were surrounded by the warmth of a tropical breeze. Several of the ladies were swaying to the music and seemed to be imagining themselves to be young and glowing with health as they performed some of the age old dances of the islands.
After the video was finished, the residents of the nursing home focused their attention on the speaker. He had tales to share of his recent trip to the beautiful state of Hawaii. Some of his listeners were actively engaged in the discussion as they moved their walkers or wheelchairs closer. Others had a far-away look in their eyes. Some folks may they were lost in their dementia or Alzheimer’s daze, but I like to think they were taking the trip of a lifetime in their minds. Or perhaps remembering a favorite vacation with their true love.
While they were listening to the Hawaii presentation, they felt the breeze on their face as surely as if they were there. They didn’t think about the hassles they had endured to get there. They didn’t have to worry about baggage claim, getting through security and navigating traffic. Instead, they arrived on wheels of various kinds and settled in to enjoy the experience of “being there” and in living in the moment.
After working in tourism for 18 years, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about travel. But after attending the monthly, “Armchair Travel” activity at my mother’s nursing home, I finally understood the true meaning of travel as an emotional experience. After the Hawaiian adventure, I was asked to speak about Alabama tourism and our local offerings for travelers for the next month. I started the “speech” with our local tourism video and then continued with information about our attractions. A couple of the residents mentioned they had been to W.C. Handy’s birthplace and Helen Keller’s birthplace years ago. Another said her husband’s coon dog was buried at the Coon Dog Cemetery. Bud wheeled himself over to tell us, “Roll Tide” as he remembered his favorite travels, to Alabama Football Games! The light of pleasant memories filled their eyes with a sparkle that was absent when they arrived for the talk.
During the hour, it was obvious that most were not thinking about their ailments, and some like my mother, have many. Instead, they were visiting the pump where Helen Keller learned her first word and feeling the water splash on their faces, and remembering man’s first step on the moon while testing zero gravity at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
Watching their reactions, I learned that travel is about reaching the soul’s quest for adventure and peoples’ desire to escape their everyday lives. In this case, the Armchair Travelers’ everyday lives consist of living within the confines of an institution; while necessary and comforting in many ways, it is still far from what most folks hope for and dream about for their later years.
Love is at the heart of travel - a love for adventure, a love for new places, a love for escaping the ordinariness of our daily lives. It is an even bigger need in a nursing home. It struck me as odd that my revelation about the value of travel came to me in a room full of people with varying levels of age, disabilities and mental capacities. A successful travel experiences is not always about four star hotels, gourmet meals or award-winning destinations. It is about connecting the sense of place with the hearts and minds of travelers. Travel is not just about physical movement in the world; it is also about movement in the mind and in checking out the view from the world of Armchair Travel.
Debbie Wilson is the Director of Tourism in Florence, Alabama and a recently published author of, “Brushing Away the Tears”. The book is about her brother, an aspiring artist, who died on AIDS in 1992. Debbie’s mother, Hazel Wilson, a resident of a nursing home for two years, contributed to the book through her letters to her son and journal entries. For more information, www.myspace.com/authordebbiewilson and Facebook Fan Site, “Brushing Away”.