Will a vacation benefit individuals with dementia?
Updated 07:31, 15-Jun-2022
Jun Wen
Chinese tourists travel in Europe, January 18, 2018. /CFP

Chinese tourists travel in Europe, January 18, 2018. /CFP

Editor's note: Jun Wen is a lecturer in Tourism and Service Marketing at the School of Business and Law, Edith Cowan University (ECU), Australia. An award-winning early career researcher, Wen was named among the Top 40 of Australia's early achievers (Rising Stars) in 2020 and 2021. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

"The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease."– Voltaire. It is well-known that there is more to medical treatment than just medicine itself. Many of us have heard of music therapy and art therapy, but what about travel therapy? Scholars from the medical field have teamed up with tourism and marketing researchers to explore ways to use tourism in treatment plans for patients with dementia.

Dementia is one of the key causes of dependency in older adults. The progressive deterioration of cognitive function is the hallmark of the disease. This deterioration results in agitation, depression, physical handicaps, and decreased quality of life. The worldwide population of older adults with dementia is expected to reach over 131 million people in 2050. This makes it likely that you will have to support a loved one with the disease at some point in your lifetime.

While some symptoms of dementia can be controlled with medication, there is no cure for the disease. In addition to medication, medical experts recommend treatments that do not involve drugs.

Some of these interventions include music therapy, exercise, cognitive stimulation, reminiscence therapy, sensory stimulation, and adaptations to a patient's mealtimes and environment. Dementia treatment and care for individuals with dementia is a huge economic burden on society. Hence, the quest for cost-effective and/or alternative therapies is ongoing and essential.

The tourism experience is complex and goes beyond satisfaction. Tourism experience encompasses feelings, emotions, emotional states, education, informative opportunities, memories, intellectual stimulation, involvement, and sensory encounters.

Positive psychology refers to the quality of life and the positive events and influences in life. When you consider how extensive the tourism experience really is, it is not hard to see how tourism could be framed as a positive psychology intervention that improves a tourist's overall well-being and quality of life.

Tourism, marketing, and medical scholars have worked together to propose ways to harness the benefits of tourism experiences to aid patients with dementia. Travel is a powerful way to stimulate cognitive function through planning and anticipating a trip initially, followed by sightseeing, thinking, concentration, and recall during and after a trip.

In order to enjoy the sights while traveling, there is inevitably some exercise involved. Helping dementia patients keep their physical health at an optimal level is important to prevent injuries due to falling.

Further, the improved stamina because of exercise provides more opportunities for interactions beyond their home environment. Changing environments alone is an effective way to stimulate the mind and give dementia patients a novel sensory experience.

There is often ethnic or unique food served in new places that brings a sense of adventure to mealtime. In addition, mealtimes during travel provide opportunities for positive interactions among those in a traveler's group.

These social interactions are beneficial to patients with dementia. In almost every travel destination, music is present. It may be in the form of live or recorded music at a restaurant or sound speakers on a boardwalk. There is often a cultural niche to the music at a particular destination that may stimulate emotions and moods.

Let's not forget the basics: many forms of tourism involve fresh air and sunshine, increasing both vitamin D and serotonin levels. Once you stop to appreciate everything that comes together to represent a holistic tourism experience, you can see how patients with dementia may benefit from tourism as an intervention.

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.

A skier wearing a protective face mask , poses on a ski slope in the Swiss Alps, November 15, 2020. /CFP

A skier wearing a protective face mask , poses on a ski slope in the Swiss Alps, November 15, 2020. /CFP

There may be times when travel is not a viable intervention for patients with dementia, such as for those with more advanced disease progression. In cases where a patient is not able to travel, virtual reality tourism could be considered.

Even without physical travel, virtual reality tourism would still provide cognitive stimulation, reminiscence and music therapies, and possibly psychological interventions through interactions with support staff and family members regarding the virtual travel experience.  

From a tourism destination perspective, many opportunities exist for marketing a destination as "dementia-friendly." Hospitality staff can 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. When dementia patients and their caregivers have enjoyable experiences at a particular destination, it is likely to become a favorite spot to visit.

The scholars who invested their efforts into this research have just started the process – they cared enough to think outside the box when it comes to dementia treatment interventions. This should not be the end of the story. As one successful entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss, once said, "It isn't enough to think outside the box. Get used to acting outside the box." We need more intellectual energy invested into specific action plans related to this topic so that we can better serve our aging population.

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