A trip for brain health: can travel therapy offer an innovative treatment for dementia?
23 August 2022
We’ve all heard of music and art therapies as an effective treatment method for mental health disorders. But what about travel therapy? A study suggests that this new remedy could have a positive impact on mental wellbeing – particularly for people with dementia.
Figures suggest around one in every 14 people aged 65 and over in the UK has some form of dementia. This number is expected to rise amid an ageing population. While some symptoms of dementia can be controlled with medication, there is still no ‘cure’ for the disease – hence the quest for cost-effective and alternative therapies. Doctors and health practitioners often engage dementia patients with various activities like exercise, mindfulness and counselling to stimulate their cognitive functions. But recently, a group of scientists found an innovative treatment to provide better experiences for dementia patients.
Researchers at the Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia have challenged the way we look at tourism and found a way to actively influence and improve the physical and mental wellbeing of dementia patients through travelling. Given tourism’s prominent role in society since the pandemic, the cross-disciplinary team at ECU are bringing tourism and dementia experts together to explore the idea of travel therapy. They believe tourism can be used as a positive non-pharmacological intervention that improves a person’s overall mental wellbeing and quality of life.
By definition, travel therapy may refer to either the work of a healthcare professional travelling with a patient or the idea of trips as being personally therapeutic. In either form, it can allow a person to get the most out of taking a vacation or other trip. Based on their literature review and expert opinion, the researchers propose how tourism may address components of non-pharmacological interventions in people with dementia. Tourism can impact many elements of dementia-related treatments in the following ways:
- Provide cognitive and sensory stimulation: Travel stimulates thoughts and knowledge, which may benefit people with dementia. Changing environments can be an effective way to stimulate the mind and give people with dementia a novel sensory experience.
- Offer a shared environment: Travel can be a powerful way to foster social interactions that can be incredibly beneficial to people with dementia – not to forget the fresh air and sunshine increasing both vitamin D and serotonin levels in patients.
- Help with physical exercise and activities: Travel therapy also involves exercise to help people with dementia keep their physical health at an optimal level and prevent injuries from falling. Exercise improves stamina and provides opportunities for social interactions beyond the home environment.
- 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.
- Deliver unique experiences: Travel can ideally also offer a food experience, and it can bring a sense of adventure among dementia patients. Mealtimes during travel provide opportunities for positive interactions among those in a traveller’s group.
- Encourage reminiscence: Talking about and remembering past experiences can be helpful for people with dementia. Tourism could help stimulate memories in people with dementia.
The study authors add that focusing on components of positive psychology, such as what people can do, positive experiences and wellbeing, may also benefit people with dementia. Scholars also recommend that a team approach – with support from medical staff, caregivers and family members – helps ensure the best possible care and decisions about tourism as an intervention for dementia patients. If there are times when travel is not a viable intervention for patients with dementia, virtual reality tourism could be considered. And from the tourism perspective, there are many opportunities to make travel more 'dementia-friendly' – for mutual benefit.
The researchers exploring this link between travel therapy and dementia have only just started the process and are looking for novel ways to help people with dementia. But this will not be the end of the story.