Travel as a Form of Alzheimer’s Therapy: A Mother and Daughter’s Adventure

Emma and her mother, Judy, are letting me share their story on this blog.

Emma is 50 and Judy is 81.  Four years ago, Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Emma wanted to spend more time with her mother, and dearly wanted to take a trip together — while they still could — but the strain of one disease on two women was evident in three short phone calls with them.    They didn’t even know where they wanted, or could, go.

Emma had pretty well-defined anxieties about traveling; she readily admitted to problems dealing with hotel noise and getting lost.  Worst, “Touring is complete overload,” she told me.  “When I travel, everything I see reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what, and it sticks with me and piles up on me, and it’s impossible to enjoy myself.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “And I also start eating too much.  Every time I can’t clear my head, I eat.”

Judy, on the other hand, was relatively carefree.  Yes, Alzheimer’s is devastating, but how would you like to forget certain things that give many of us heart palpitations?  Judy couldn’t remember news coverage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 being shot down mid air, or suicidal German pilot Andreas Lubitz ramming a planeload of innocent travelers into the Alps.  To my astonishment (happiness?) she couldn’t even recall 9/11.

“It’s on my ICE list, dear,” Judy said.

“Pick a place for us,” Emma told me.  “We’re paying to pick the best place out there for us to go to. And it better not be too far.”

My mission was clear.  Judy was in a wheelchair, so I ruled out a trip to Latin America; there was just no guarantee of disabled access, even in the larger cities.  Still, Emma and Judy wanted an “international vacation,” so Canada became the obvious choice.  Before I knew it, I was picking out flights for them from Oakland, California to Victoria, British Columbia.  Being on an island sounded “manageable” to Emma, and Judy realized she wanted to see the Butchart Gardens.

The first thing I told Emma was to get her mom out of the electric wheelchair.  Push her around all day, I said.  You’ll interact more, you’ll get great exercise, and it will feel so different than what you’re used to. And please, Emma, don’t plan every notch of your itinerary because it will just make you feel tied down and obligated, and your mother will forget it all anyway.  Victoria is a relatively small, safe, welcoming and sedate city.  You don’t really have to plan anything.  My hope was that Emma would be so busy seeing things through her mother’s eyes that she didn’t notice the things that normally bothered her.

Emma and Judy believed in what I had to say.  On a vacation, it didn’t really matter if Judy didn’t remember anything.  They were living in the moment. It didn’t even matter if Judy wouldn’t remember much of this very trip.  We don’t go on adventures just to make mental keepsakes out of them; we go to exert ourselves with all five senses.  Memory isn’t one of our five senses.  We spend a lot of energy as a society caring for Alzheimer’s victims, so why do we emphasize “reclaiming” experiences so much?  Why don’t we think more along these lines — of the exhilarating immersion in a new environment that Alzheimer’s can’t touch?

Beyond that, the irony of Emma and Judy’s experience is that Emma feared certain aspects of traveling because her mother feared them.  Now that Judy wasn’t sensitized to the same old anxieties, mother and daughter couldn’t feed off each other’s worries.  Relief… and more proof that fear of travel is learned, not innate.  Not something that Emma would every actually admit to, of course.

I got a postcard of the Butchart Gardens that featured lipstick kisses of both ladies.

Looking back on the trip, I wrote to Emma that night, what was the worst thing you encountered?

“God,” she said, “I don’t recall.”


Confronting Racism During Travel

It’s a fact: most people in Europe don’t interact much with Latin Americans.  Even as multicultural as Europe is today — with sizable immigrant and migrant populations from the Middle East, Africa, even the Far East – there are only tiny communities of people from places like Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica (for cultural and linguistic reasons, Spain is the obvious exception).  Many people in the ex-Communist countries can’t remember the last time they met someone from Latin America; many have never even heard the term “Hispanic.”  So what happens when you’re Latino and want to visit Eastern Europe?  Especially in the middle of Europe’s polarizing refugee crisis?

I was approached last month by Alissa and Alfredo Morales (who let me use their full names in this blog entry).  They’d lived in California since they were children; Alissa was born in El Salvador and Alfredo was from Mexico.  Racially… they looked Middle Eastern.  What would usually be a sensitive topic was laid out very bluntly over Skype.  On their honeymoon this August to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Alissa and Alfredo had repeatedly been mistaken for Syrian refugees, and the result was shameful and humiliating.  They were asked at a Hungarian train station how long they’d been on the road to Germany.  Alissa was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant.  Upon boarding a city bus in Cesky Krumlov, they were asked for their passports — for a journey that lasted five miles.  They’d been detained at a small train station at the Slovakian border for two hours while customs agents went through all their belongings – in “response to increased security concerns.”  They were kicked out of a department store in suburban Prague for a reason they still don’t know (the store manager spoke only Czech and German), but strongly believe had something to do with the fact that they resembled no one around them.

“Our honeymoon was ruined,” Alissa told me tearfully.  “What could we have done differently?”

I had to think about this for awhile.  Finally I told Alissa that there are two truths: 1) people’s natural curiosity about foreigners can often override their bias, and 2) deep down, people often want their worst thoughts about others to be proven wrong.   I had learned this while traveling in rural parts of Russia where, to say the least, people aren’t big fans of Americans.  Alissa and Alfredo were surprised by what I had to share, and I was equally surprised when they told me they wanted to “redo” their honeymoon by going back to Budapest in late October.

“We were so upset and distracted on our first trip that we didn’t get to see or do half the things we wanted to,” Alfredo told me.

Needless to say, it took exceptional bravery to want to go back, and we continued to work together.  I told them that no two individuals are going to change how frustrated Eastern Europeans feel about their tiny countries being “invaded” by migrants.  Alissa and Alfredo admitted that most of the time when they were out and about on their trip, they’d turned angry and bitter, and this probably hadn’t helped how they were perceived.  Alissa, I said, you’re going to have to smile.  Talk with strangers; go out of your way to do it.   They will know soon enough that you are an American.  Those bored train station attendants who look like they want to give you a hard time? Ask them if they can take a picture of you two.  Heck, they are already staring at you.  If you ask for a picture, you are most obviously a tourist, not someone who is there to claim asylum.  Make friends with the people who “have” to like you because you are buying their services: your hotel reception staff.  You can rely on them for help if you get “detained” in the city.  They know you are Hispanics, Americans, tourists.  Even the most biased people will help you in the interest of doing business.

Alissa and Alfredo always took great pride in being independent tourists and exploring on foot, but we agreed that the chance of them being stopped by bigoted police was lower if they were on the Hop-on Hop Off bus — and they agreed.   I told them  to spend a little extra money to take a taxi than a city bus, and to have their American passports ready to show at the train stations rather than having to rummage for them and give some restless Slovakian time to demand what’s in their bags.  The reality is, it’s a lot easier on a short trip to work around and avoid people’s suspicions than try to alter their stereotypes or worst fears.  I told them, You’ve been to Hungary before; you know what to expect.  The worst is over.  Now you just have to do it again – the difference is that this time, you’re going to enjoy it.

They took off on their “new” honeymoon on October 24, and I heard back from them a couple days ago.   They sounded relaxed and excited.  They were staying at a much smaller hotel this time where they had a great relationship with the husband and wife owners,  who gave them some pointers of their own and found them an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.

“We’ve found the only Mexican restaurant in all of Budapest,” Alissa said.

“How is it?”  I asked.

“Well, the manager asked me to cook a dish for him,” she replied.  “I took it as a complement.”

Well done, Alissa.