Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure

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January 8, 2010 Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure By KIRK JOHNSON

OCALA, Fla. — Ilse Telesmanich, 90, sprained her ankle hiking in South Africa last August. She tried to keep going on the three-week trip, she said, hobbled as she was.

“I got very good at hopping on one foot the last time I sprained it,” she said.

But the guides had unfortunately failed to bring along any crutches — let alone walkers. So Ms. Telesmanich cut the trip short, but she is planning on leaving her home here in central Florida this summer to complete what she started.

Tom Lackey, 89, also continued to embrace adventure late into life, in his case as a way past the grief of losing his wife to a heart attack 10 years ago.

Mr. Lackey took up wing-walking. Last summer, he strapped his feet to the top of a single-engine biplane, like the daredevils of aviation’s early days, and flew across the English Channel at 160 miles per hour — with nothing between him and the wild blue yonder but goggles and layers of clothing to fight the wind-chill.

“My family thinks I’m mad,” Mr. Lackey said in a telephone interview discussing the flight — his 20th wing-walk. “I probably am.”

Intensely active older men and women who have the means and see the twilight years as just another stage of exploration are pushing further and harder, tossing aside presumed limitations. And the global travel and leisure industry, long focused on youth, is racing to keep up.

“This is an emerging market phenomenon based on tens of millions of longer-lived men and women with more youth vitality than ever imagined,” said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and author who has written widely about aging and economics.

And the so-called experiential marketplace — sensation, education, adventure and culture, estimated at $56 billion and growing, according to a new study from George Washington University — is where much of that new old-money is headed.

At the Grand Circle Corporation, for example, a Boston-based company that specializes in older travelers, adventure tours have gone from 16 percent of passenger volume in 2001 to 50 percent for advance bookings this year, even as the average traveler’s age has risen to 68 from 62.

At Exploritas, a nonprofit educational travel group previously known as Elderhostel, the proportion of people over 75 choosing adventure-tour options is up 27 percent since 2004. The sharpest growth has been in the over-85 crowd, more than 70 percent.

At VBT, a bike touring company in Vermont that does rides in countries around the world, the number of bikers over 70 has doubled in the last 10 years.

“Unusual is way more popular now,” said Alan E. Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle, “and with this audience, that’s a major shift.”

But the era of geriatric derring-do is also bringing new questions.

Take travel medical insurance. At, an online company, coverage that costs $15 for a 45-year-old runs four times that much or more for the same trip at age 85, and evacuation coverage for medical emergencies is not available at all through the company’s provider after that age.