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.”


How to Avoid Post-Vacation Depression

Here’s a quick quiz.  Which of the following do you do when you get back home from a spectacular trip abroad?
a)  go to bed, even after you’ve recovered from jet lag
b)  have a beer (or two or three) and ignore your pile of bills for a week
c)  turn on the Travel Channel and leave it on (after you’ve gone back to bed)
d)  look around your home with subtle disgust and distaste
e)  two or more of the above

If you have a slight grimace on your face, keep reading.

Let’s be honest, if not dramatic: bringing your vacation to a close can be a rewarding, emotional, and draining experience.  You may feel euphoric, proud, reborn, grateful, fulfilled, and like a different person.  After you’ve seen, done, and been a part of many incredible things abroad, it can be hard to move on – and even more challenging not to slip into a major funk as you compare your vacation lifestyle with the realities waiting at home.

Here are some ideas for preventing post-trip doldrums from turning into a real bout of depression.  While they’re not going to make you feel as great as you did while dining in London or Rome, you might find yourself feeling as good or even better than you did before you left for your trip — and with some energy left over to dream about your next getaway.

Manage your Restlessness. Traveling comes with a certain intensity and compression that can be difficult to unwind from.  It also has the effect of “slowing” time, since you often do more different and eye-opening things in a single day than you might in a week at home.  When you return, the restlessness you get from not doing something “new and different” can be downright unnerving.  This restlessness usually goes away within three to six weeks of settling back into your everyday life.  If you have the time, try taking smaller day trips in the weeks after your return to wear it off.

Become More Active.  When you travel, you might realize that you’re not in the shape you thought you were, and as you gradually increase your fitness level during your trip, you may notice how much better you feel.  This can inspire you to join a gym or take up a sport (including one you tried on your vacation) when you return.  Becoming more active will not only make it easier to be in shape for the next trip; it can give any mounting depression a cheerful kick in the face.  You may also conveniently lose some of the weight you gained at that last round of restaurants in Venice.

Clean Your House.  Sound like an odd suggestion?   Besides being obviously practical, cleaning your house can help you clear your head and reconnect with your usual surroundings.  Your own home can feel unfamiliar and even strange after you’ve been through four or five hotel rooms in a row.  Doing some cleaning will also help you find physical (and emotional) space for everything you brought home so you’re not tripping over your half-unpacked suitcase every time you meander to the coffee table for your copy of Conde Nast Traveler.  Finally, you may start to redecorate with small things you bought on your trip, such as placemats,  pottery, and wall hangings, so that you’re spreading the joy of your vacation around you, literally.

Clean OUT Your House.  Living out of a suitcase can make you realize just how little you need to lead a full life.  A lot of people are inspired to unload a number of little-used items from their home after they return from vacation, and find it convenient to host a garage sale or sell items on eBay in order to make money for the next trip.

Having fewer possessions can also focus you more on your present life, and give you a far greater sense of freedom.  And making a nice chunk of money to put towards Tokyo or Hong Kong is going to do wonders for your mood.

Start a New Hobby.  During  a trip you’re exposed to a myriad of new and different things – or the same things that you are used to, but in a different context.  A common hobby you may take up after returning home is learning how to cook a certain ethnic food, or studying the language of a place you plan to revisit.  Such things often need only a modest investment in time or money, and give you that exhilarating feel you get while on a trip — of doing something for the first time.

Make New Acquaintances and Friends.  To relive positive memories, you may be unable to resist telling others a lot about your trip – even if you’ve never shared much of anything with anyone.  Since people are generally curious to hear firsthand experiences of other places and cultures, your chances of being rebuffed  are pretty minimal.  To coworkers and people who don’t know you well, you become known as “the traveler,” which makes a great icebreaker every time you see someone that you didn’t feel comfortable talking to before.

And last but not least…

Keep Sharing!  A lot of travel bloggers post almost every day while they are abroad, and then wind down their posts or even come to a dead stop when they return home.  Don’t do this!  Save some experiences and photos to share after  you’ve started unpacking; not only will it “extend” your trip, but it can also take some of the pressure off your hectic touring schedule (let’s face it, blogging after a 10-hour day in Paris might not be something you can stay awake for).  And let’s not forget what travel and  blogging have in common: connecting you with the world. The more you connect, the less likely you are to get depressed.


Honey, can we empty these bags and go right back out again?

Oh wait, we live in the real world.  And the real world isn’t bad; it’s what we make of it!

You Did WHAT on Your Trip?! Travel, Adrenaline, and Taking Risks: The Connection

Have you ever sat next to someone like this on the plane ride home from your vacation?:

  • A 45-year old woman with a bulging disc in her spine who felt so fantastic in Auckland that she went bungy jumping… then wondered why she couldn’t walk the next morning
  • A bipolar, alcoholic Swede who blew his entire food budget to take a helicopter ride over a volcano blowing near Reykjavik
  • A guy arrested for slipping into St. Basil’s Cathedral for his own “private tour.”  Twice.
  • A 25-year-old woman from Australia who decided to learn how to drive on the right…  on the Autobahn

Do these things sound crazy, stupid, reckless, and just plain thrilling?  Before you answer, think about some of the things you’ve done on a trip that have made you, well, question your better judgment.   I’ll even leave room for you to mentally write them out:



(it was)



Are you smiling, or grimacing?  Well, it probably depends on how your adventure turned out.  You may want to roll your head in your hands and say, what was I thinking? Or you may want to say: Hell, yeah.  What happened in _______ stays in _______.  And you know: you’d never pull such a “stunt” at home.

We do different things in a new and different environment; that’s one reason travel makes us feel so good, makes us feel so alive again.  We see something we like, and we do it.  It‘s quite often as simple as that.  The future doesn’t enter much into our minds.  We haven’t had time to obsess over the consequences.  And the same often holds true whether you are a natural daredevil — or a hesitant, and even anxious person.

It’s in the latter case that the effects of travel-inspired risk-taking can rear their ugly head.  Many sensitive, cautious individuals have low tolerances for stress, or — to put it more eloquently — for “shit happening.”  The violate their personal limits more easily; they raise the stakes on their psychological well-being.   If things work out, they feel euphoric.  If their risk ends up in minor (or major) disaster, they can feel terrified and regretful.

All four of my plane mates briefly described above — Terri, Edvard, Josh, and Amy — are what I’d describe as hesitant, cautious people.  Maybe even worrywarts.  Certainly, people who view the glass as half-full only as long as things are going “as they should.”   And yet they did what they did.  I could tell that each of them would spend a lot of time thinking about their thrill-seeking quests.  They would probably have some psychological scars.  They were amazed — and scared — over what a short memory they’d had when they decided to seize the moment.  Their own tunnel vision both frightened them and inspired them.  And finally, I got the sense that most of them were going to become bold wanderlusts; maybe even minor adrenaline junkies.  (Amy is still fighting with her car insurance company.)

So what happens for you when you cross the line from adventurous to risk-taker? Do you feel thrilled, or just plain reckless?  Many times, that extra shot of adrenaline helps you do something that you never thought you could pull off.    There’s a big long definition for adrenaline, but I have a simple description: it’s that stir of now setting both your mind and body free.

Some of the happiest travelers I’ve met live like they’re not planning to come back home from their vacation.  That might not be you — or it may be you to a lesser degree.  Either way, we get a high off that first impulse, that first sense of possibility.  It keeps us traveling; it keeps us moving forward.  It keeps us thrilled.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Wow, that looks great!  And this whiplash of mine is, like, almost totally healed