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Travel as Mental Health Treatment? How Dementia Patients May Benefit (and How to Make It Work)

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If I asked you to name the mental health benefits of travel, you could probably make very good guesses without doing any research. For starters: Travel 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, like dementia?

New research argues that they do. In a scientific paper published online in Tourism Management, researchers explore the potential benefits of tourism for dementia patients, citing evidence that it could improve a patient’s symptoms and quality of life.

Why is this kind of research important? “Dementia … is a key cause of dependency among older adults and greatly affects patients’ and caregivers’ life quality,” the study authors write. With an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide suffering from the disease, finding new forms of treatment could benefit many patients and their families.

The Benefits of Travel for a Person With Dementia

If you’re wondering what your loved one might gain from travel, consider these benefits listed by the study authors:

  1. Social stimulation. Traveling to a new place can help your loved one engage with family and with 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 thoughts, knowledge, and recall.
  2. Emotional stimulation. Sightseeing and spending time in new environments can help your loved one experience an array 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.
  3. Exercise. Boosting physical activity in dementia patients does wonders for cognitive health. As the authors explain, it increases heart health, sends more oxygen to the brain, improves blood sugar control, and may also ease depression. Travel opens up amazing opportunities for exercise, in part because it often doesn’t even feel like exercise — simply wandering around a foreign city can result in walking for miles.
  4. Music therapy. Music has long been used as a form of therapy to enhance memory and communication. While it isn’t directly related to tourism, seeking out musical experiences with your loved one could be a great way to plan a trip. New music may improve behavior, emotions, and cognition.
  5. Sensory stimulation. You might not think about it often, but traveling exposes you not just to new sights, but to new smells, sounds, tastes, and tangible experiences. The study authors note that aromatherapy, sensory gardens (gardens that appeal to all five senses), and massages are all linked to improved behavior in dementia patients. So, finding travel activities that appeal to different senses might be another good way to plan a trip.
  6. Reminiscence therapy. Don’t you love taking a trip down memory lane with your friends and family? Those conversations are amazing for loved ones with dementia, too. Helping a dementia patient relive a meaningful experience stimulates the brain and brings about a good mood. And travel provides many opportunities to create memories — so make sure you reminisce after your trip.

It’s clear, then, that tourism may be very beneficial for a dementia patient. But if you tried to actually plan a trip, how would it go?

How To Travel With a Dementia Patient

You might be thinking that travel with a dementia patient only sounds good in theory. And the truth is, traveling with a dementia patient is indeed no easy feat.

“People with dementia don’t always do very well when they are out of their comfort zone or in unfamiliar places,” says Krista Elkins, NRP, RN, and specialist at HealthCanal. “It may make them more confused and anxious. Changes in the environment often lead to a person with dementia wandering off.”

However, traveling with a dementia patient is certainly doable. Here’s what the experts recommend.

  1. Make a list of necessities. “Gather all of the things that might be useful during your travels, like snacks and water bottles,” says Amber Dixion, dietitian, geriatric nurse, and CEO of Elderly Assist Inc. “And make sure that everything is packed in advance. Don’t forget about things like medications or toothbrushes!”
  2. Plan ahead. “Make sure all the necessary arrangements are in place before you leave,” suggests Ketan Parmar, MBBS, DPM, psychiatrist for Clinic Spots Holistic Healthcare. “This will help minimize stress and anxiety during the trip.”
  3. Call ahead. “Consider calling ahead to airports, tour companies, hotels, or other destinations to alert them if your loved one has special needs, or gather information about the best time to visit,” says Laura Herman, certified nurse’s aid and senior dementia specialist at Safe Senior Care. “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.
  4. Bring your paperwork. “It is very important when traveling with a person with dementia to carry their identification card, a recent photo of them, medical records, and power of attorney paperwork,” says Elkins.
  5. Bring familiar items. “If possible, bring along some familiar items from home (like photos or blankets) so that the trip feels more comfortable for them,” says Dixon.
  6. Take 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 the loved one with dementia.”
  7. Limit travel time. “Limit plane flights and layover times,” says Dr. Petersen. “Too much waiting or long flight times (more than four hours) can result in frustration for the person with dementia and their caregiver.”
  8. Choose a destination that is dementia-friendly. The definition of “dementia-friendly” will change from patient to patient, but for starters: “Avoid places with large crowds or loud noises, and opt for destinations with plenty of opportunities for exploration and relaxation,” says Dr. Parmar. It’s also helpful to select a place that is easily accessible, with good access to healthcare and pharmacies.
  9. Safety and comfort first. In order 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 trek through the countryside if they haven’t hiked in 10 years. “Try to keep changes to daily routines to a minimum,” suggests Elkins.
  10. Plan out rest times. “[Dementia patients] may become more easily fatigued or confused than they do in familiar environments,” says Herman. “Be sure to schedule plenty of extra time to rest and avoid feeling rushed or stressed.” She also suggests using a wheelchair: “Riding in a wheelchair can help conserve their energy even if they typically don’t require one at home.”

Of course, speak with your loved one’s doctors about the possibility of a trip. And if you are 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 you strike out on a full fledged excursion,” says Dr. Petersen.

One last piece of advice? “Be flexible,” Dr. Parmar recommends. “Things may not always go as planned, and that’s okay. The most important thing is to enjoy your time together.”

“Your loved one with dementia is likely to pick up on your unspoken feelings,” adds Herman. “So have fun, expect hiccups, and decide to just go with the flow on this adventure.”

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