If I asked you to name the mental health benefits of travel, you could probably make a pretty good guess without doing any research. To get started: Traveling has the potential to instantly boost your mood, increase your daily step count, and exercise your brain with the help of new environments, people, and experiences. But do these benefits extend to people with cognitive disabilities, such as dementia?
New research argues that they do. In a scientific paper published online at Tourism Managementresearchers explore the potential benefits of tourism for dementia patients, citing evidence that it can improve symptoms and the patient’s quality of life.
Why is this type of research important? “Dementia … is a leading cause of dependency among older adults and greatly affects the quality of life of patients and caregivers,” the study authors wrote. With an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide suffering from this disease, finding new forms of treatment could benefit many patients and their families.
Benefits of travel for a person with dementia
If you’re wondering what your loved one can benefit from traveling, consider these benefits listed by the study’s authors:
- Social stimulation. Traveling to a new place can help your loved one engage with family and people in new ways—say, chatting with an Italian waiter at a restaurant or asking for directions to the Louvre in Paris. These conversations can stimulate thought, knowledge and memory.
- Emotional stimulation. Seeing and spending time in new environments can help your loved one experience a range of emotions, moods and reactions, which helps stimulate brain function. Most people never forget the first time they saw the glorious expanse of the Grand Canyon, for example.
- Exercise. Increased physical activity in dementia patients does wonders for cognitive health. As the authors explain, it boosts heart health, sends more oxygen to the brain, improves blood sugar control, and may also ease depression. Traveling opens up amazing opportunities for exercise, in part because it often doesn’t even feel like exercise—just wandering around a foreign city can result in miles of walking.
- Music therapy. Music has long been used as a form of therapy to improve memory and communication. Although not directly related to tourism, seeking out musical experiences with your loved one can be a great way to plan a trip. New music can improve behavior, emotions, and cognition.
- Sensory stimulation. You may not think about it often, but traveling exposes you not only to new sights, but also to new smells, sounds, tastes and experiences. The study authors note that aromatherapy, sensory gardens (gardens that appeal to all five senses) and massages are all associated with improved behavior in dementia patients. So finding travel activities that appeal to different senses can be another good way to plan a trip.
- Reminiscence therapy. Don’t you love taking a trip down memory lane with your friends and family? These conversations are also amazing for loved ones with dementia. Helping a dementia patient relive a meaningful experience stimulates the brain and brings a good mood. And travel offers plenty of opportunities to make memories – so be sure to reminisce after your trip.
It is clear, then, that tourism can be very beneficial for a dementia patient. But if you tried to plan a trip, how would it go?
How to travel with a dementia patient
You might think that traveling with a dementia patient sounds good only in theory. And the truth is that traveling with a dementia patient is really not an easy thing.
“People with dementia don’t always do very well when they’re out of their comfort zone or in unfamiliar places,” says Krista Elkins, NRP, RN, and specialist at HealthCanal. “This can make them more confused and anxious. Changes in the environment often lead to a person with dementia leaving.”
However, traveling with a dementia patient is certainly doable. Here’s what the experts recommend.
- Make a list of things you need. “Pack all the things that might come in handy on your travels, like snacks and water bottles,” says Amber Dixion, nutritionist, geriatric nurse and CEO of Elderly Assist Inc. “And make sure everything is packed in advance. Don’t forget about things like medicine or toothbrushes!”
- Plan ahead. “Make sure all necessary precautions are in place before you leave,” suggests Ketan Parmar, MBBS, DPM, psychiatrist for Holistic Healthcare at Clinic Spots. “This will help minimize stress and anxiety during travel.”
- Call ahead. “Consider calling airports, tour companies, hotels or other destinations ahead of time to let them know if your loved one has special needs, or to gather information about the best time to visit,” says Laura Herman, certified nurse’s aide and senior dementia specialist at Safe. Care for the elderly. “Check with TSA to see if there may be accommodations for screening if someone has dementia,” adds Sandra Petersen, DNP, APRN and senior VP of health and wellness at Pegasus Senior Living.
- Bring your documents. “It is very important when traveling with a person with dementia to carry their identification card, a recent photo of them, medical records and authorization documents,” says Elkins.
- Bring familiar items. “If possible, bring some familiar items from home (like pictures or blankets) to make the trip more comfortable for them,” says Dixon.
- Get extra help. “It may be necessary, especially for those with advanced disease, to have additional caregivers along,” advises Dr. Petersen. “Some of my patients plan ‘family vacations’ where they each take turns caring for a loved one with dementia.”
- Limit travel time. “Limit airplane flights and layover times,” says Dr. Petersen. “Too many waits or long flight times (more than four hours) can result in frustration for the person with dementia and their carer.”
- Choose a destination that is dementia friendly. The definition of “dementia-friendly” will vary from patient to patient, but for starters: “Avoid places with large crowds or loud noises and choose destinations with lots of opportunities for exploration and relaxation,” says Dr. Parmar. It is also helpful to choose a location that is easily accessible, with good access to healthcare and pharmacies.
- Safety and comfort first. To have an enjoyable time, make sure your loved one can handle the activities you have planned. Don’t expect them to suddenly take a two-mile trip across the countryside if they haven’t walked in 10 years. “Try to keep changes to daily routines to a minimum,” suggests Elkins.
- Plan your rest times. “[Dementia patients] can get tired or distracted more easily than in familiar environments,” Herman says. “Make sure to schedule plenty of extra time to rest and avoid feeling rushed or stressed.” She also suggests using a wheelchair: “Saving on a wheelchair can help conserve their energy even if they don’t usually need one at home.”
Of course, talk to your loved one’s doctors about the possibility of a trip. And if you’re still unsure, consider planning a short trip first. “A day trip to a local park, museum or public garden can help you identify potential challenges before embarking on a full excursion,” says Dr. Petersen.
One last piece of advice? “Be flexible,” recommends Dr. Parmar. “Things may not always go according to plan, and that’s okay. The most important thing is to enjoy your time together.”
“Your loved one with dementia will likely pick up on your unspoken feelings,” adds Herman. “So have fun, expect hiccups, and decide to go with the flow on this adventure.”