Bucket-list destinations. All-you-can-eat buffets. Hassle-free planning. There's a reason why cruises are so popular with the 65-and-older crowd. Nearly 27 million people take a cruise each year, and approximately one in three of them are senior citizens, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although cruising is a relatively safe excursion (especially compared to, say, your daughter's upcoming shark-diving vacation in the Bahamas), the WHO says that more than half of the emergency visits to a ship's infirmary are made by people over the age of 65 — usually with problems like injuries, motion sickness, GI troubles, and respiratory tract infections. (Norovirus is a particularly notorious virus that can make its rounds on cruise ships.)
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to stay healthy onboard. Try these five simple steps for smooth sailing.
Do your research
Before you step onboard a ship, you should know that not all health insurance plans will cover people who are traveling (or cruising) outside of the U.S. (If you have Medicare, learn what's covered when you're out of the country.) If that's the case for you, you'll probably want to opt for traveler's insurance coverage.
Similarly, when scouting out possible destinations, keep in mind that not all ports of call are equally accessible for people who use a walker or cane. "My biggest concern on cruise ships is [falling]", says Ron Factora, MD, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "If you have no problems walking around…it might not be a problem. But if you use a cane or have problems with arthritis, you may want to see if an escort is available or bring an assistive device on the ship." Plus, you may only have a limited amount of time at a particular destination. "Time constraints are relevant for people with gait impairment," he says. "You don't want to miss the boat, so to speak."
Once you've narrowed down your options to three or four ships (Broadway-style musicals? Check. Murder-mystery dinner? Check.), it's a smart idea to call the cruise line and ask about the medical quarters, emergency services, attending physicians, and more.
The Cruise Line International Association says that licensed physicians and registered nurses must be available on cruise ships, and that all ships have defibrillators, cardiac monitors, X-ray machines, and laboratory equipment.
"I don't think any question is a bad question," says Dr. Factora. "You never know what's going to happen on the cruise line, but you can ask how they approach emergency situations and what type of care they can provide."
Airlift evacuation services? Check. (Although let's hope that's not necessary!)
If you have Medicare, you might also want to ring up the provider to see what's covered while you're traveling.
Alert the U.S. that you'll be traveling outside of the country
If you're disembarking abroad — and plan on spending a few extra days in another country or two — you might want to enroll in S.T.E.P., or the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which is run by the U.S. Department of State. This way, the U.S. embassy will have an easier time reaching you in case of an emergency.
Pack a medical portfolio
If you have a chronic condition, you'll want to bring along enough medical supplies to last for the duration of your trip. (Dr. Factora recommends packing an extra week's worth of prescription meds, just in case of a delay.)
The WHO tells travelers to keep their prescriptions in their original packaging and bring a doctor's note that describes what the meds are for. You may also want to bring an updated list of your medications: "This way, if you lose your pills, the staff on the cruise ship can help get you the medications, [either at the ship's infirmary or] at the next port of call," he says. If you have Medicare, there may be limitations on what's covered. Contact your plan for information about their out-of-network and replacement rules. "I also suggest bringing the contact information for your primary care doctor, and if something were to happen, a health care power of attorney."
Dr. Factora notes that some medications (like those for anxiety) are harder to obtain while traveling than others: "Because those have a street value, people look for them, and you'll want to keep them in a secure location," he says.
Avoid germs as best you can
Possible stowaways include norovirus and influenza — so be sure to wash your hands after you return from your cabin, says Dr. Factora. If you're walking around above deck, stash a bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket.
You might also want to rethink your sushi order: "Compared to cooked food, things that are served raw might be more susceptible to germs that haven't been killed off by heat," he says.
Intimidated? Don't be. "Use common sense, just like you would when you're traveling anywhere else," says Dr. Factora. "Try to enjoy yourself as much as you can."