‘Travel therapy’ may offer treatment for dementia and benefit mental health
- Dementia impacts many people’s abilities to think, remember, and function.
- Since dementia has no cure, care is often supportive to help people with dementia have a higher quality of life for as long as possible.
- New research shows that tourism, or “travel therapy,” may be beneficial for mental well-being and may have several components that can positively impact brain health.
Many people like to travel for rest, relaxation, and inspiration — but there may be significant cognitive benefits as well.
A forthcoming study publishing in the October 2022 edition of Tourism Management presents the thoughts of a cross-disciplinary team of experts in both dementia and tourism.
The research has not yet been peer-reviewed, but experts have proposed there may be significant benefits of travel for people with dementia, particularly in the areas of mental health and well-being.
DementiaTrusted Source is a neurological disorder that alters a person’s ability to think, reason, and remember. Most often, dementia impacts elderly individuals, but in some cases, it may also occur in younger adults.
Dementia describes various neurological conditions affecting the brain that worsen over time and is not considered part of the natural aging process. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH)Trusted Source, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia.
The symptoms of dementia can range from mild to severe, but people with dementia can experience the following:
- getting lost or wandering in once-familiar areas
- trouble remembering, including the names of friends or relatives
- problems with movement or completing tasks
- repeating the same questions over and over
- using words that don’t fit to describe familiar objects
Currently, dementia has no cure, but some medications and treatments may help control symptoms. Care is often supportive, including helping those with dementia do as much as they can on their own and helping them have a higher quality of life.
Researchers are still working out to best help those with dementia, but many elements of promoting overall well-being may be helpful. One area of interest is how traveling may benefit people with dementia.
The study authors proposed the potential benefits of tourism, sometimes called “travel therapy,” in treating people with dementia.
One definition of tourism the researchers used was “visiting places outside one’s everyday environment for no longer than a full year.” They note that the experience of tourism has four main components to it:
- how it impacts feelings, emotions, and mood (affective experience)
- how it affects thoughts and memories (cognitive experience)
- how it impacts behavior (conative experience)
- how it impacts the senses (sensorial experience)
The study authors concluded that tourism may have a potentially positive impact on well-being and quality of life through a variety of components. Still, literature supporting this in the treatment of dementia is limited.
Based on their literature review and expert opinion, the researchers proposed how tourism may address components of non-pharmacological interventions in people with dementia. Tourism could impact the following areas and many other elements of treatment:
- Cognitive and sensory stimulation: Travel stimulates thoughts and knowledge, which may benefit people with dementia. It could also involve experiencing sensations that improve behavior and well-being.
- Environment: Travel puts people in a new environment and can increase social interaction, which can stimulate brain function for people with dementia.
- Exercise: By its nature, travel involves movement and exercise. Maintenance and improving physical function can help people with dementia.
- The use of musical therapy: While travel doesn’t always involve music, music can help to improve brain function and boost mood in people with dementia. Travel that has more of a musical focus could therefore be beneficial.
- Reminiscence: Talking about and remembering past experiences can be helpful for people with dementia. Tourism may help stimulate memories in people with dementia.
The study authors added that focusing on components of positive psychology, such as what people can do, positive experiences, and well-being may also benefit people with dementia. They proposed a few ways to implement components of tourism to help people with dementia, such as group travel that promotes social interactions or traveling to locations that stimulate the senses.
Study author Dr. Jun Wen, a lecturer in tourism and hospitality management in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University, noted the following to Medical News Today:
“All tourism experiences offer elements of anticipation and planning, both of which stimulate brain function. Exercise is often an important component of tourism experiences, and it is frequently included in dementia intervention plans. Tourism experiences such as a beach visit offer dementia patients sensory stimulation, boosting one’s mood, exercise, music therapy, and instilling a sense of freedom as non-medicine dementia interventions. Group travel may simulate psychological interventions, and music at a destination is in line with music therapy programs for those with dementia.” – Dr. Jun Wen
While there is limited data, the idea of the benefits of travel is not new.
For example, Andrea Robinson, PhD, wrote in a 2017 Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse newsletter about the benefits of travel to mental health:
“Vacations can also improve our mental health by reducing depression and anxiety. Vacations can improve mood and reduce stress by removing people from the activities and environments that they associate with stress and anxiety. A Canadian study of over 800 lawyers found vacations reduced depression and buffered against job stress. Even a short vacation can reduce stress. A small Japanese study found a short, three-day leisure trip reduced perceived levels of stress and reduced levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.” –Andrea Robinson, PhD
Dr. Wen’s paper discusses many ideas that could lead to further research and the development of more diverse treatment options for people with dementia. And it proposes that researchers can more thoroughly explore tourism’s medical benefits.
Further research can focus on the benefits of travel therapy in people with dementia. The authors note that there is limited research on how travel benefits tourists with vulnerabilities like dementia.
The other component is how to best implement these practices. Dr. Wen explained that not every person with dementia would be able to travel.
“A team approach to dementia treatment helps to ensure the best possible care, and decisions about tourism as an intervention should be made with the input of the full team, including medical staff, caregivers, and family members,” he said. “From a tourism destination perspective, many opportunities exist for marketing a destination as ‘dementia-friendly.’”
Dr. Wen added that hospitality staff could strive to accommodate guests with psychological conditions in a positive atmosphere. “Certain destinations may be able to incorporate some additional sensory exhibits that would provide a richer experience for visitors with dementia,” he said.
When Catherine was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s 8 years ago we elected to retire, sell our home and became nomads running marathons and half marathons all over the world. I ended up writing a book, Running all over the world, our race against early onset Alzheimer’s, about our travels and tout the benefits of travel throughout the book. I am not suggesting everyone take as drastic a step as us but do suggest that you give travel a try. I am sure there are places you have always wanted to go and visit and there is no better time like the present.
The time horizon for this disease varies from person to person so I would suggest starting as early as possible. The travel industry is very accommodating and they are trained to handle any and all conditions including dementia. It does get more challenging as the disease progresses but for me I love a good challenge.