Millions of people will embark on a cruise this year. With so many ports of call around the world and a wide range of centrally located activities to interest people of all ages, it’s no wonder cruising is so popular. These days, there’s really something for everyone on board, including gourmet dining, surfing, Broadway-style shows and much more.

The wide array of destinations, amenities and activities has made cruising an excellent way for extended families to connect and vacation together. Multi-generational cruising allows grandparents, parents and kids to all enjoy a memorable experience on the water.

“Cruise vacations are a great option for seniors because they can do as much or as little as they want, depending on their level of ability,” says Ronald Pettit, senior specialist access manager with Royal Caribbean International. “Some seniors are quite active, while others are more relaxed.”

Just because a family member has dementia, Parkinson’s disease or limited mobility doesn’t necessarily mean vacationing is off limits. Most cruise lines will work to accommodate guests’ needs so that everyone has an enjoyable vacation. Pettit offers the following travel advice for caregivers who wish to take a cruise with an aging loved one.

Planning Your Trip

  • Duration. Consider the length of time you’ll spend on a cruise. If you haven’t cruised before, you may want to opt for a three-night or four-night excursion rather than booking a longer trip to see how you and your loved one fare. If all goes well, a longer vacation may be in your future.
  • Size of the vessel. Some travelers prefer smaller ships since there are fewer places for a memory-impaired guest to remember or wander off to. However, Pettit has had many success stories with cruisers who travel on larger cruise lines. Larger ships tend to offer more activities and amenities, but keep in mind that it also means more people on board.
    Getting around on a ship should be fairly easy since public areas usually offer wide corridors, wheelchair ramps, elevators and even lifts to get in and out of swimming pools. Restrooms are wheelchair accessible and some cruise lines even feature unisex or family bathrooms so caregivers can assist their loved ones. Research each ship’s offerings to ensure the one you choose is a good fit for your needs.
  • Alert the staff. When booking, let the cruise line know in advance that one of the guests in your party has special needs. Cruise ships are designed to accommodate people with moderate disabilities but stating your needs up front is the best way for the company and staff to assist you. Most ships offer accessible staterooms with wider doors, bathrooms with a roll-in shower and grab bars, as well as other features that accommodate guests who use wheelchairs and power scooters. Some ships even offer automatic entry doors into staterooms. Working closely with a booking agent or travel planner will ensure all your needs are met.
  • Book in advance. If you need more than one room, you’ll want to book your trip as far in advance as possible to ensure that you get rooms next to or across from each other. Adjoining staterooms are also available, which give you added privacy and better access to the person you are caring for.
  • Choose room location. Pettit suggests choosing a stateroom that will be easy to get to, such as near an elevator, at the end of a hall, or closest to the areas you and your loved one will use the most on the ship, such as the dining room or the adults-only pool. “Think about forward verses aft and how many decks you’ll be away from the stateroom,” Pettit adds. Nearly all cruise lines have a map of the ship online, so before you book your cruise, consider the activities that you want to partake in, and use that to choose an accessible stateroom.
  • Request priority boarding. Many cruise lines offer priority boarding and disembarkation and extra assistance during these important times. Cruise staff members are responsible for getting thousands of people on and off the ship in a timely and efficient manner. Communicating your needs in advance will allow them to better prepare and help make the process run as smoothly and stress-free as possible.
  • Take medications and prescriptions. If your loved one takes medication, be sure to pack enough to last the duration of the trip. It’s also a good idea to bring the written prescriptions with you just in case. This information will help the ship’s doctor, should there be an unforeseen medical emergency.
  • Ask about tracking devices. The average cruise ship is several football fields long and wide. It’s easy for people without memory problems to get lost on these enormous vessels, let alone those who are living with cognitive impairment. To help guests navigate ships, certain cruise lines are offering high-tech mobile devices with GPS tracking for passengers to rent during their stay. Originally designed with children and teens in mind, utilizing this technology can provide peace of mind for caregivers and a certain amount of independence for seniors. Not every cruise ship offers this technology, so ask about this or similar services when you book the cruise.

Making the Most of your Trip

  • Identification. Once on board, make sure your loved one wears a wristband or a lanyard at all times. The tag should be clearly printed with their name, ship name, and stateroom number, along with your cell phone or an onboard phone number. Be sure to carry current photos of your loved one with you on the trip as well. Although everyone has a photo taken for identification purposes when they board the ship, it may take a while for cruise personnel to retrieve it.
  • Clothing. Cool, comfortable clothing that is easy to get on and off is a must. Pettit also recommends dressing your loved one in bright colors or distinctive clothing, if possible, so they will be easily recognizable if you get separated in a crowd.
  • Select activities. Cruise ships have a wide range of activities for guests to participate in, so you’ll never be bored. There are dance classes, wine tastings, bingo games and other social events. Be sure to ask your loved one which events and activities they would enjoy. You know them best, so it is up to you to decide if they can be left alone to partake in an activity or stay in the stateroom by themselves to rest. If you have any questions about activities, amenities or excursions, talk to a cruise staff member about the details.
  • Make your room recognizable. Because cruise ships are so large, corridors often look very similar. Pettit suggests that guests decorate their loved one’s stateroom door so it will be easily recognizable. If the person you’re caring for tends to wander, pack a small travel door alarm with you to alert you when the stateroom door opens.
  • Plan meals ahead of time. Dining is a significant part of the cruise experience. If your loved one doesn’t handle crowds well, request a table for just your party at the beginning of the cruise. When going to the dining room, be sure to take the same route each time to avoid confusion. Many cruise lines also offer dining alternatives, so you can enjoy meals when and where it’s convenient for your schedule, instead of being required to eat in the formal dining room at an appointed time. Don’t forget, there’s always room service.

Remember, cruise ships are finite places. Guests can’t readily get off the ship and wander too far. Using these suggestions, your vacation should be an enjoyable experience. Remember, going on a cruise with a loved one is about spending time together. “Even if they can’t remember everything, you will always treasure those memories,” notes Pettit.