Could your next vacation also help treat dementia?

Everyone loves a vacation. But could your next trip – complete with new experiences and a change of scenery – slow the progression of your loved one’s dementia and improve the quality of life? A recent study looked at ways travel can help a loved one with dementia.

dr. Jun Wen, a lecturer in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University joined a team of researchers in tourism, psychology, marketing and medical science to explore the benefits of travel for people with dementia—and the results appear promising.

The reason? Travel begins with brain-stimulating planning and anticipation. During travel, new experiences, a novel environment, shared meals, exercise and social interactions also stimulate brain activity. A new destination may combine a variety of different sensory experiences, including a new genre of music, foods with a unique flavor profile, and a change of scenery. And spending time with loved ones during travel builds memories for everyone.

Travel begins with brain-stimulating planning and anticipation. During travel, new experiences, a novel environment, shared meals, exercise and social interactions also stimulate brain activity.

Travel is yet another example of a nonpharmacological intervention that may enhance a senior’s environment to help them maintain independence and continue activities of daily living longer. Group activities and sensory experiences, for example, stimulate the brain; music therapy and exercise can improve mood and a sense of well-being; and reminiscence therapy and family videos enhance memories.

“When considering the nonmedicine treatment interventions for people with dementia,” Wen said, “one can find many parallels between these treatment interventions and the benefits of tourism experiences.”

Worldwide, 55 million people are living with dementia, and most of those have Alzheimer’s disease. While no cure yet exists, clinicians often favor nonpharmacological treatments when possible to avoid possible side effects of dementia medications.

Planning your next trip with an older adult

Before you pack your suitcases, check with your loved one’s medical team and other caregivers. Someone with advanced dementia may not be a good candidate for travel. But that doesn’t mean the destination can’t come to them.

“In cases where a patient is not able to travel,” Wen said, “virtual reality tourism could be considered.”

The various options in virtual reality can still provide both sensory input and brain stimulation, as well as combat loneliness in many older adults. The option may provide yet another tool for caregivers in their role of caring for someone with dementia.

“Dementia is expected to affect 131.5 million people by 2050,” Wen said. “This means that more and more families will be looking for ways to help their loved ones cope with dementia.”

As for the research, he added the study is just a first look at how travel can promote well-being in a person with dementia.

“We cared enough to think outside the box when it comes to dementia treatment interventions,” Wen said. “This should not be the end of the story.”

What I’ve learned traveling with my father, who has advanced dementia

TravelAwaits writer Barbara Barrielle recently wrote about her experiences traveling with her father, who has advanced dementia.

“There is really no end to the advice I can give about traveling with a family member with dementia,” she wrote. “In advanced stages, they will get a little out of travel, but the rest of the family will benefit from supporting each other. Studies that recommend travel as a cognitive benefit are most likely referring to earlier stages of dementia, where there is still some learning and more awareness of the person’s environment.”

“As a caretaker, it’s important to set realistic expectations. These are the things I’ve learned traveling with my father.”


Safety tips for traveling with an older adult with dementia

If your loved one enjoys traveling, here are some tips to help make the trip safe and successful:

  • Include your loved one in the planning phase.
  • Consider a shorter trip closer to home.
  • Hold onto your loved one’s important documents (insurance card, passport, etc.) and possessions.
  • Keep your loved one’s medications with you.
  • Have your loved one wear identification and a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
  • If using commercial transportation, travel during off-peak hours.
  • Bring something of comfort from home, such as a pillow, a favorite snack, etc.
  • Bring a night light to illuminate the way to the bathroom.
  • Arrange activities when your loved one is most alert and most energetic.
  • Allow for downtime.
  • Understand that a new environment or crowded places may trigger anxiety or unusual behavior.
  • Be flexible and patient.
  • Aim to have quality time together rather than a quantity of experiences.
  • Ask the travel destination about dementia-friendly restaurants (sometimes called Purple Table Reservations).

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