Most people in earlier stages of dementia are usually still quite functional and many like to travel. It’s not just an “old person” condition anymore; early-onset dementia is affecting thousands of younger people in their 30’s and 40’s and invariably tourism becomes affected. Unfortunately, the tourism industry is unprepared for the problems a tourist with dementia might experience especially if they are traveling alone or in a foreign country.
A tour guide here in Costa Rica, specializing in nature tours and treks, told me a story about a group he took to Tortuguero, an isolated part of the country famous for the turtles nesting on the beaches. This area is extremely hot and humid, takes a 3-hour bus ride from the capital, then a 5-hour boat trip to get there. In this group was a woman traveling alone with Alzheimer’s and neither the tour company nor my friend was notified; until too late.
She seemed fine at first but as the trip became more strenuous, she began to have emotional meltdowns and irrational outbursts. My friend called the company and after a call to her daughter who had booked the tour, discovered she had Alzheimer’s. She disrupted everything, the group got angry and the guide having no dementia experience, didn’t know what to do. She would go in and out of these episodes and when they began the trekking, she broke down on the trail crying and unable to walk. Eventually, they got her to the refuge and back to the city.
There have been several cases of tourists with dementia getting lost in this country and one went into the jungle and was never found. The problem is when someone is in early stages in their recognizable home environment with regular routines they usually manage well, or so it appears. Like this woman’s daughter, often family and friends don’t understand dementia symptoms usually increase in strange environments. Imagine the difficulty of maneuvering airports, customs, and baggage. Then regardless of whether on a tour or not they are still in a strange environment with unfamiliar people and hotels and when in a foreign country, a different language.
A person with early dementia should not travel alone internationally.
Another challenge is the person usually believes they are fine because they can manage their dementia symptoms at home. They may be able to book their trip themselves and get through the airports but when they immerse themselves over time in unfamiliar continually changing circumstances even slight symptoms can increase suddenly.
In Costa Rica, tourism is a major economic resource, and tour operators need to add dementia stipulations into their tour guidelines and provide basic dementia training for tour guides, especially those who take tourists to isolated areas. Usually, these companies don’t want the added expense, but that has to change if they are to provide quality and safe service.
Throughout the world, dementia is increasing, and its time the tourism industry becomes as dementia conscious as they are for other handicaps.