Planning a Senior-Friendly Trip to the Museum

By Janice Masters

A day trip to your local art or historical museum can be a great outing for older adults. Not only is it mentally and physically stimulating, the seniors you are with may have ties to the people, places, or events on exhibit—talk about high interest for them and for you! But as fun and memorable an experience like this can be, it can turn unpleasant quickly if you haven’t done your homework. The two most basic things to keep in mind are:

  • Know your people and
  • Know what to expect at your intended destination

Your People

Knowing the unique needs of the seniors in your care will go a long way towards ensuring a successful trip. If you are senior-care professional, make sure you have current medical information on everyone in the group. It is likely that at least some will be dealing with issues such as diabetes, hypertension, dementia, macular degeneration, balance issues, or muscular/joint pain. Knowing the general and specific health needs of your group will be a big help in choosing an appropriate destination. And once the trip is underway, it will enable you to assist them and/or any medical professionals should the needs arise.

Your Destination

How do you ensure the spot you’ve chosen for an enjoyable day out is appropriate for your people and minimize the chance of unpleasant surprises? No doubt about it: It’s best if you can check out the site yourself by visiting ahead of time. However, if that isn’t possible, start by getting as much information from the museum’s website as you can. Then, plan to spend some time on the phone with their staff (this may mean multiple calls) to help you answer the following questions and any others you may have pertaining to your particular group.

How long does it take to get there? If it’s more than 90 minutes, make sure you plan a restroom stop along the way. Use a Google Map, or better yet, drive the distance yourself to calculate travel time and search for rest stops. It’s also a good idea to bring enough non-perishable snacks and bottled water for each person on the trip (you and the driver included) in case people are hungry after the outing or—heaven forbid—your car or bus breaks down.

What is the price of admission? Make sure it’s appropriate for the people you’re escorting. Frequently, museums give a discount to seniors and/or large groups, but it may not be enough for those facing financial hardship. If that’s the case, find another museum. Many are free or run on a donation-only basis. Those who can afford it will be able to contribute, and if you’re taking this trip as part of your job, you may have some budget to cover the rest.

Are there stairs? How many and how steep? What is the access for those with walkers or wheelchairs? Are there elevators to all areas? A tour that takes museum-goers up and down many flights of stairs, as may be the case when visiting an historical estate, is not a good choice for people who have trouble walking, are dealing with joint pain, or experience shortness of breath.

Is the museum well-lighted? Many of us face deteriorating vision as we age, and dark interior spaces can increase the risk of injury for those with low vision. Bumping into furniture or tripping over a rug due to poor lighting is common. Whereas a younger person might suffer a bruise from such an incident, an older person may experience severe bleeding or broken bones. If you think the lighting is inadequate for your group to navigate safely, talk to the museum’s management about your concerns to see if anything can be done. If not, go elsewhere.

Are outdoor paths and walkways fairly flat or are there uneven surfaces? Uneven walkways can pose problems for anyone, but especially for seniors whose vision may not allow them to see potential hazards in time to avoid them and whose balance may not be what it once was. A fall that is merely embarrassing to someone younger can be truly life-threatening to an older adult.

If the tour is guided, what is the approximate (or even better, the exact) distance that will be covered? Though many active seniors can walk long distances many cannot. Unless you have a very spry and active group, stick with tours where the distance covered is limited or see if a shuttle is available for those who have trouble walking.

How long is the tour? More than an hour is too much for many seniors who have difficulty standing for long periods of time. No matter how fascinating a story the docent is telling, if your people are in pain they won’t hear it. It should help significantly if seating is available in most areas where the docent will be stopping, but 90 minutes is pushing it and over 2 hours is not advisable.

Is the docent used to working with the hard of hearing? Even if you ask about this ahead of time, it’s a good idea to pull docents aside before the tour begins to make sure they’re aware that they will need to speak up and speak clearly. Since slightly slower processing times can also be an issue for older adults, you may need to ask them to slow down a bit. If they forget while conducting the tour, don’t hesitate to politely remind them.

If it is a self-guided tour, is the print on museum exhibit labels big enough for people with low vision to read? Often the information on the description cards is quite small. Audio headsets are increasingly common in larger museums, which can help, but if you opt to use these, make sure your folks can easily operate them. Between not being able to read the descriptions and fiddling around with an electronic nuisance, the fun factor for your folks will plummet.

Are restrooms easily accessible? Although this is important for museum-goers of all ages, it is especially critical for older adults who may have medical conditions or be taking medications that can create the need for a quick trip to the powder room. Make sure to ask if they are only accessible by stairs or if they can be reached by ramp or elevator. Also find out if there are enough stalls to accommodate several people at a time.

Is there a restaurant or café? If so what are their hours? What type of food do they serve? Is there sit-down service or is it cafeteria style? (This may not be a good option for those who have trouble standing for long periods.) What is the price range? Make sure both the cuisine and the cost are appropriate for your group or arrange to eat elsewhere.

Many fascinating art and historical museums are well equipped for older adults, but not all. So, whether you’re taking your mom or a large senior group to a museum for a memorable day out, do your homework, ask questions, and most importantly—have fun!

Janice Masters is the Resident Program Director at Royal Oaks Senior Living Community. She works with older adults at this beautiful independent living community in Southern California.

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