Footloose, fancy free – the backpacking grandparents

Their careers over, the kids flown, older people are joining the backpacker trail. Joanna Mathers reports.

There were snipers on the rooftops in Jesus’ birthplace. On this particular day they were just a safety precaution – the Prime Minister was due to visit – but guns and bombs are daily fare when you live in a political tinderbox like Palestine.

Bethlehem is a long way, culturally and geographically, from the quiet streets of Tauranga. But Gayel and Gerald Paterson, then 67 and 70, had chosen to place themselves centre stage in one of the world’s hottest conflict zones in 2008.

“When we decided to volunteer at Bethlehem Bible College we didn’t realise it was in Palestine,” says Gayel.

“I guess after a while we kind of got used to living on the edge. It gave us a completely different perspective of the conflict in the area and made us realise how lovely and normal the people caught up in the middle of this are.”

Eschewing all stereotypes of Big OE-ers, the Patersons had packed their bags and launched headlong into the unknown more than a year earlier.

Leaving behind the comforting familiarity of home, friends and family, they exemplify a growing trend within the older community.

Over 55 and often retired, this demographic is turning the idea of the “Big OE” on its head. Heading away for months or years at a time, those undertaking their “grey gap years” (as it’s colloquially known) may be decades older than their just-out-of-school counterparts, but their numbers are swelling.

Statistics New Zealand data yields telling figures about the number of older people leaving the country to travel.

According to its records, 428,799 people aged 55-plus left the country to travel in 2005, rising to 662,040 last year.

And research in the UK has revealed that those who 55-plus spend up to 40 per cent more on foreign travel than those in the 34-54 age group. These sorts of figures aren’t available in New Zealand but it’s a fair bet we’d follow suit.

Average life expectancy now means as many as another 30 years of living after retirement. Our parents and grandparents, it seems, have developed itchy feet.

As with many great plans the Patersons’ “grey gap year” was conceptualised over a cuppa. Gayel says she and a mate were discussing a mutual friend’s recent adventures in the UK where she had taken up paid work caring for an older person.

“This particular lady really loved what she was doing, so my friend and I started talking about it is an option for us and our husbands,” she says. “There was no real reason we couldn’t do something similar.”

Gerald was also keen on the idea, so the pair began to make plans for what would become a 19-month working holiday in the United Kingdom, Canada, Europe and Palestine.

The Patersons weren’t in the financial position to fund a trip of that length, so they decided to look for work in one of England’s grand stately homes.

After a quick trip to Canada, they settled in London, scouring the pages of well-known toff magazine The Lady for positions with wealthy families in beautiful houses.

“We applied for anything that was going,” says Gayel. “And eventually we were offered roles in a lovely three-storey stately home in Oxfordshire.”

As with many great plans, Gayel and Gerald Patersons’ “grey gap year” was conceptualised over a cuppa. Photo / Supplied

Gayel took on the duties of housekeeper and Gerald kept the grounds up to scratch and performed odd jobs. At weekends they explored the UK, as well as taking extended leave to travel around Europe.

“It really was a truly amazing experience,” she says. “We took day trips around the area, visiting the Yorkshire Dales and the Welsh coastline. We also took a month off and stayed with a family who had hosted our daughter when she was on exchange to Switzerland, and drove across the border to France.”

The couple’s Palestinian sojourn was probably the most dramatic aspect of the trip. While volunteering to work in the library of a Bible college in Bethlehem, they experienced protests and social upheaval alongside the minutiae of life in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

“I remember one day we got caught up in a huge protest as we walked to work,” says Gayel. “I wasn’t really frightened, as there were women and children all around us. They were all just really lovely, regular people.”

Gerald died this year, but Gayel feels extremely lucky to have shared this experience with him.

“Gerald had never been out of the country before this trip,” she says. “It’s amazing to have such wonderful memories of the trip together.”

The Patersons’ daughter Sandi says that rather than being concerned about her parents’ grand plan, she was very excited that they had decided to take the plunge into parts unknown.

“They talked about it for a long time, so I was very pleased when they actually managed to do it. It was kind of a role reversal; it’s the sort of thing that you’d wish for your children.”

Statistics data shows the main destinations for the grey gap travellers are Australia, United Kingdom and the US. But there has also been a big jump in the numbers over-60 going to China, Thailand, India and the Pacific Islands.

Ron Tustin, a retirement coach who writes for grownups.co.nz, says baby-boomers tend to travel in distinct ways.

“There are three stages; the ‘go-go’ time when there is money in the bank, reasonable health and a willingness to travel and explore; the ‘slow-go’ time, a few years on, when we may not be quite as mobile but still able to do a reasonable amount; and the ‘no-go’ period when being sedentary is the preferred option.”

He says those in the first category can be particularly adventurous when it comes to travel.

“They may be returning to places visited as a backpacker, getting interested in family histories and researching this in the countries our forefathers came from,” he says.

Tustin believes it is also common for those in this first stage to look to home swaps as a way to save money and enjoy longer periods overseas.

“These home exchanges are a good option that many retirees opt for. There are several websites where you can make contact with another family in most parts of the world and arrange to swap houses.

“This gives people an experience in another community, which can be for a longer period. Many of the people who register on these sites are in the 60-plus age group.”

Gina Brown’s world was rearranged when she became a widow in 2007. She realised she could either continue on her life path, or do something completely outside the norm. She chose the latter option.

Brown had always been fascinated by archaeology; she remembers discussing it with her father at the dinner table as a young girl.

“He told me all about ‘cradle of civilisation in Africa’,” she says.

“I read a lot of books about archaeology and it had always had huge appeal.”

“A desire to travel more extensively and learn at the same time led me to a volunteering ‘career’ in archaeology many years later.”

Brown had travelled with her husband in the late 1960s, living in England and having the classic Kiwi OE. But she says the desire to travel never really left and her changed circumstances provided new impetus for her grand plans.

“My husband would have wanted to watch the digs, but wouldn’t really have been interested in getting actively involved,” she says.

Gina has travelled back to the UK to take part in digs yearly since then, working mainly on Roman sites and uncovering the bones, detritus and treasures of yesteryear. Photo / Supplied

“So after his death I decided to take the opportunity to explore something that had been in the back of my mind for decades.”

She undertook her first archeological trip in 2008, at 60. After training as a volunteer in York, she took an active role on her first dig in northern England.

She has travelled back to the UK to take part in digs yearly since then, working mainly on Roman sites and uncovering the bones, detritus and treasures of yesteryear.

She loves meeting people from all ages and stages of life – “people you would otherwise never encounter”.

Some might find the idea of travelling alone as an older person somewhat frightening, but she is not daunted. “One of the essential things for me when travelling is not to be rushed as I tend to become dithery,” she says. “If I travel by myself I can take things at my own pace.”

The Invercargill woman’s two daughters are delighted for her.

“They have been very much in support of my decision.

“They know I get bored very easily,” she says, laughing.

She plans to keep travelling and working for the foreseeable future, and sees this as a better alternative to “sitting around and watching Coronation Street”.

“I asked myself the question, ‘What do I do with the rest of my life?’ Death was never a part of my strategic plan.”

Richard Poole, the owner of grownups.co.nz, says a lot of older people advertise for long-term home or motorhome swaps on the website.

He says travel has been a popular option for those 55-plus throughout the 10 years he has run the site, but he believes as more “empty-nesters” reach retirement age it will increase in popularity.

“We are always encouraging people to think of ways to make their lives richer, and travel is a really key component of this,” he says.

“Be it through guided tours, or self-travel for longer periods of time, this demographic is increasingly engaged with the travel experience.”

Gayel Paterson, for one, continues travelling. Although her husband has died, the world is still calling.

“I’m keen to go overseas again, maybe to stay with people I met on our last journey. I have friends who have made a lifestyle out of travel.

“I’d highly recommend it for anyone of my generation who is wondering ‘what next’ for their lives.”

Faye and Neville Scott travelled for five years. Photo / Doug Sherring

Faye and Neville Scott planned to go away for six months, but ended up travelling between England and New Zealand for five years.

Faye was 67 and Neville 69 when they decided to pack their bags and take off in search of adventure.

The Tauranga couple started their journey in London, before finding work tending to the home and garden of a multimillionaire IT whizz in a small hamlet in Suffolk.

“It was a beautiful 15th-century home that had been refurbished,” says Faye. “We had a contract for 18 months, but the owner kept asking us to go back. So we did.”

As parents of two grown children and grandparents to a little girl, they had family in New Zealand but kept in touch through regular phone calls.

The couple travelled back to New Zealand every Christmas, but were always lured back by the lifestyle in the UK.

“We lived in a lovely little annex attached to the home and were treated like family. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to any older person who is wondering what to do with their lives after the children have grown.”