Empty nesters get set to fly
Move over backpacking millenials, the boomer generation is making travel a number one New Year's resolution, as Celine Naughton reports
With fewer family ties to bind them, it's no wonder that travel is at the top of the list of New Year resolutions for Ireland's baby boomer generation.
And thanks to the growing success of a new kid on the travel market block, mid-lifers everywhere can feather their empty nests while seeing new places and making friends all over the world.
Gaetano Forte (62) and his wife Karen (60) are two members of the fast-growing Freebird Club, a website that's as much about making social connections as it is about seeing new places. Last summer, the pair set off for a weekend break in the Swiss Alps, staying with hosts who offered not only a room for rent, but the chance to experience Swiss family life as well.
"We were a little apprehensive, because we'd never met the couple," says Gaetano, from Howth, Co Dublin. "However, it ended up being one of the best weekends we ever had.
"Our hosts, Luisa and Joseph Roesli, built their house themselves, turning an old hayshed into an ultra modern, eco-friendly home in a picture-postcard setting perched on the side of a mountain overlooking Lake Zurich. They were brilliant craic, very entertaining, and when we wanted to chill out on our own, that was fine too.
"It wasn't just a question of getting keys to an apartment. Luisa and Joseph picked us up at the train station and lavished food and drink on us. On day two we had a picnic together in a field of wild flowers. It was as if we'd known each other forever. You'd never get that experience in a hotel or B&B. We'd go back in a heartbeat, and they plan to come and stay with us at some stage."
Last year Margaret Treanor spent a month in Provence to improve her fluency in French.
"I stayed one week in an apartment, one in a hotel, and two weeks with a Freebird host," says the 60-year-old. "The latter was the most enriching experience by a mile. My host Amanda included me in her day-to-day life - going to the market, meeting family and friends, and exploring the countryside. I could afford to stay longer with her because I wasn't paying hotel prices, and I got to absorb the lifestyle and culture of the region. It was wonderful."
Dervla and Brian Massey from Ballinamuck, Longford, rent rooms in their empty nest as Freebird hosts. Dervla says it was a 'ker-ching' moment when she first heard about the scheme.
"It resonated with me," she says. "Brian and I live in a four-bed house, we love travelling and we're social animals, so hosting guests seemed a natural choice. The fact that it's for over-50s appealed, because younger people have a different kind of energy. At 67, I don't consider myself elderly, but I don't want to be entertaining 30-year-olds. I do that with my family. This is a different vibe.
"When our first guests arrived from Germany we took them to the village and showed them around. We got on great and when they left, they wrote in our guest book, 'We came as strangers and left as friends'. That was lovely."
The Freebird Club is the brainchild of Kerryman Peter Mangan (47), who came up with the idea after renting out a house he'd built in Glenbeigh to visitors. As he spent most of his time in Dublin, his father Owen, a widower and semi-retired vet, was on hand to meet and greet the guests, and when older adults came to stay, the meeting and greeting turned to nights out together in the pub, rounds of golf, fun being had and friendships made.
"I took some guests with me to work, doing bovine TB testing on farms," says Owen. "I drove them to the village pub where they met the locals. I took them to the Gap of Dunloe, and Dingle. They loved it."
But the visitors were not the only ones benefiting from the experience.
"There are many people like me who might suffer a small bit from isolation," says Owen, now in his late 70s. "I host in my own house now, and I find that having older guests makes it a level playing field. We have more in common. They're friendly and easy to get on with."
Officially launched in April this year, the Freebird Club now has 1,500 members in 38 countries. The company takes a 12pc commission from guests and 3pc from hosts on each booking, and charges a one-off joining fee of €25 to cover the cost of vetting and approving members.
It has already won several awards, including this year's European Social Innovation Tournament in Latvia, and the first Smart Ageing Innovation Award run by Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange (ISAX).
"This is an unprecedented time for our rapidly ageing population," says the club's founder. "The number of people over 60 is set to double by the year 2050, and we're already living 20 to 25 years longer than our great grandparents.
"This demographic wave raises a lot of issues like social isolation, and people struggling with pensions and life savings. We need to put measures in place that will empower us as we grow older.
"This is one tool we can use to enrich people's lives. When I saw first-hand how it put a smile on my father's face, it was like a solution appearing before my eyes. I want it to be much more than an accommodation service. It's about making connections, building friendships and creating a better world for people to grow old.
Peter adds: "In the focus groups I conducted when testing the concept, the name I'd originally given the business - Silver Sharers - was quickly dismissed. I'd brought together the idea of silver surfers in a sharing economy, but the focus groups told me in no uncertain terms that they didn't buy into all that silver nonsense.
"People retiring today are the boomer generation; they're different from my father's peers. They grew up listening to the Sex Pistols and the Clash. They're rebellious, and they won't be patronised. Freebird was born out of those early conversations with inspiring, dynamic people over 50. The word suggests flight, empty nest, mobility and freedom.
"A sense of adventure and love of life are not restricted to the young. Why not have a gap year on retirement? I'm currently in talks with InterRail and Eurail to come on board as potential partners to make travelling across Europe a rite of passage for retirees, using Freebird hosts instead of youth hostels as younger backpackers would do. "
The Freebird Club is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to develop the business. For details, see igg.me/at/FreebirdGoldenAge