Last spring, when my mother offered to cover a large share of the expenses for a holiday getaway to Mexico for my siblings, husband and children, the idea was obviously intriguing.
The prospect of visiting a tropical location in the middle of winter with loved ones we rarely get to see for concentrated periods of time held appeal. And it offered the chance to create some everlasting memories and bonding moments for my aging mother.
But experience has taught my husband and I to approach the intergenerational vacation with some trepidation.
When my children were young and prone to leaving their belongings scattered throughout the condo we were renting, my mother would routinely partake in a routine we came to call, “Whose sock is on the floor?” It was a prelude to her directing us to get our children to keep the place tidy. We often felt judged and on edge.
Even when the children are grown, there can be tensions when a large family group gathers for several days under one roof. There’s always the possibility of disagreements arising over such issues as how often to dine at restaurants—and whether to head to inexpensive vs. pricey establishments—and the types of activities to pursue.
Still, we know my mother, now an 82-year-old widow, is eager to travel and see new places and is unable to do so alone. So we decided to give it a try.
Over Christmas, my husband and I headed to Mexico with my mother, sister, one of my daughters and, we later discovered, my brother—who lives in China and surprised us when we got there. Our older daughter opted out, her memories of previous intergenerational jaunts outweighing her desire for a free vacation.
Our family is part of a growing trend. According to MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers, 37% of families took multigenerational vacations in 2018, while 43% intend to take one or more multigenerational vacations during the next 12 months.
Boomers cite a desire to spend quality time relaxing with family as a top motivator, according to AARP’s 2019 Travel Trend Survey. Family relationships are enduring and have a dimension to them rarely found in friendships, said Robert E. Emery, Ph.D, a Professor of Psychology at The University of Virginia.
“Sharing memories, experiences, time and connections between or within the generations really strengths these family relationships,” he said.
Diane Sanford, a clinical psychologist based in St. Louis, Missouri and author of Stress Less, Live Better: 5 Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety, Worry, and Self-Criticism, agrees, but says the strife that can permeate intergenerational vacations is a source of discomfort for many of her patients.
Hoping to pave the way for a more enjoyable experience this time around, I spoke with Emery, Sanford and Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum about essential conversations to have before you head on these types of vacations.
The following are their tips—as well as some of my insights—on how to make the most of your time together as a family.
1. Manage Your Expectations
Sanford points out that families are complicated “and you have all these different personalities. When you put more than three to four people together at a time, it’s a powder keg, a stack of dynamite waiting to explode.”
She suggests being open-minded and flexible. Don’t plan in advance for this to be the picture perfect Facebook or Instagram-worthy vacation. Realize that issues will arise and meet the situation with an open mind, she said. Emery adds that you have to anticipate making more compromises.
2. Discuss how you’ll split expenses
Money can be a huge source of conflict. If grandparents aren’t funding the entire vacation, make sure you decide how the rest of your family will divide up the costs and set a budget.
My mother agreed to pay for lodging and airfare, so my sister, brother, husband and I came up with a plan to split the costs of food, on-the-ground transportation, meals, and entertainment.
3. Pick a neutral site
It can help to pick a location where no one family feels like they’re in charge. Hosting creates its own set of burdens on one family, Emery says. He adds that boundaries can be hard to come by on a vacation.
If your budget allows, it’s ideal to have separate bedrooms or even separate rentals or hotel rooms within the same property. Emery points out that teenagers like to stay up late and sleep in, so it’s great if they can have their own space where they’re not disturbing others.
I put much thought into our lodging choice so it would satisfy everyone. We didn’t want my mother alone in a hotel room, yet we desired a setting where we could be all together that would also allow for privacy. Plus we wanted to avoid taking my mother out to a restaurant for every meal.
So we rented a three bedroom condo through AirBnB where we ate breakfast and lunch. Early risers could hang out in the living room while the others slept or sunned themselves on the roof deck. My husband and I got our own private digs on the third floor. There was a pool that my mother—an avid swimmer—could easily access just off the elevator of the building and our place was in walking distance of restaurants and shops.
We all thought it was the perfect, roomy setting for our vacation and it cost less than paying for individual hotel rooms.
4. Divide up responsibilities
When you take into account child care, cooking, cleaning, and caring for an elderly relative, there are a lot of things that still need looking after while on vacation.
McCarthy said there’s often an expectation among adult children that the grandparents will regularly babysit while they hit the town at night. But that’s often not what the grandparents—often healthy and active—have in mind, so it’s best to address this up front.
She suggests considering a resort that provides child care and then having grandparents raise the issue with their adult children before heading on the trip, saying something like, “We’re just too old to babysit all day long. We are happy there is a facility that provides child care. Are you comfortable with that?”
Grandparents could also indicate in that conversation whether they are willing to babysit for part of the trip. Sanford says it usually works better if you deal with your own relative, so the daughter should discuss this with her mother, not her mother-in-law.
5. Agree on an itinerary
You should agree on an itinerary so the vacation fits everyone’s varying needs and interests. “It won’t work if Grandma wants to sail on the Queen Mary” to England for six days, McCarthy says. That obviously would not be an ideal trip for those with young children.
Sanford says low key vacations—like beach getaways—are best suited for families with younger children and aging parents. “You don’t need to be spending 10 to 12 hours on an airplane getting to Europe. The point is to go where you will have a good time and the stress won’t be high and you have the energy to enjoy each other’s company.”
She said it’s key to discuss ways to schedule downtime, especially when young children or the elderly are involved, and how it will be handled if someone needs a break. “If your children have a certain sleep schedule or routine, you need to inform the family and let them know when you’re not available” and tell them in advance they need to respect that, she said.
6. Take breaks from each other
Some families feel they need to do everything together, but that’s not a good idea, Emery says. Everyone needs time on their own, or in smaller groups, to walk the beach or hit the ski slopes.
You’re more likely to enjoy those moments together by taking time apart.
My sister, knowing that my brother, husband, daughter and I wanted to go on a tour snorkeling and exploring the Mayan Ruins, realized it wouldn’t be appropriate for my mother, and kindly offered to stay back with her for a day.
Another morning, my husband and daughter stayed at the condo while I went to a yoga class with my siblings.
And my brother spent one afternoon by himself on a walk to shops and the beach.
Splitting up regularly and giving each other breathing room proved to be a simple way to keep everyone happy. The bigger the group, the more opportunities you’ll have to split off and pursue different types of activities.
7. Have a plan for when things get heated
Sanford suggests this technique to diffuse the situation: Stop, take a breath, observe and proceed. “Don’t fly off the handle or stomp out of the room. Try and settle yourself so you can look at things reasonably,” she says. “And don’t take things personally.”
Emery advises that you pick your battles; a vacation isn’t the right venue to broach long-simmering, important topics with a family member. “This is a time where everyone wants to let their hair down and relax a bit, so allow yourself to do that as well.”
I took this advice to heart and it made for one of best intergenerational vacations we’ve had in some time. We enjoyed our poolside time together under the warm Mexican sun.
And we cherished the leisurely al fresco dinners sipping margaritas and munching on guacamole and tortilla chips, where my mother, at our urging, shared memories of her youth, including her courtship with my father.
Not everything was perfect; there were some minimal disagreements over restaurant choices, and the inevitable frantic moment when we all had to pitch in to get my mother packed, since she had yet to do so a half hour before we were due to leave for the airport.
But going in with the idea that not everything was likely to go smoothly helped, as did allowing each other breaks and scheduling in plenty of downtime. It was during one of those periods that I most appreciated this experience.
One night, hanging out in our condo after a relaxing day spent at the beach, my husband asked my mother about the high and low point of her day. The high point, she said, was “realizing what a great family I have.”