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Taking to the road

When they travel, the elderly stop feeling pain, sleep better and have their memory reactivated

She loves to move about. In fact it’s difficult to locate her. Recently Rebeca has been in Molina, in the Seventh Region of Chile (some 300 kilometers from Santiago), to get to know Las Siete Tasas Park. She arrived back at Santiago, packed and set off for Quintero, an hour from the Chilean capital, showing how to deal with leadership, self-esteem and looking after oneself. At seventy-three, the Chilean Rebeca Mondaca could perfectly write a book about the stories of her trips, making good use of the wave of tourist by the elderly within her country. She is part of the almost 80,000 elderly citizens who over the last four years have participated in an initiative led by the National Tourism Service of Chile (Sernatur), and now followed by many cities. Rebeca Mondaca’s logbook already contains her walks through the cities of Arica, Iquique, Villarrica and Pucón in Chile, and Tacna in Peru, on the frontier with Chile. In December of 2004, she took another journey, this time to Mendoza in Argentina; next summer she should be off to La Serena and who knows, perhaps another international trip. “Assuming that my health holds up”, Rebeca comments.

On returning from her trips, Rebeca feels in excellent shape. Fulfilled. Happy. Arthritis and osteoporosis more into a secondary plan. She forgets her pain. “I feel better, more lively. My health has improved a lot”, she says. This is a biological phenomenon that the majority of the elderly confirm, according to a study carried out by the Medical School of the Catholic University of Chile. The survey, published in the Medical Magazine of Chile, concluded that the pathologies such as insomnia, lack of appetite, depression, urinary incontinence, and including articulation pains, were mollified after a trip.

Economy and health
The medical doctor, Pedro Paulo Marín, the study’s coordinator, explained that in Europe the consensus of opinion is that the elderly represent an important niche in the market for whom there had not been any offers until a short time ago. “This shows that the elderly are not simply a burden, they generate income. And further, they could enjoy inactive installations, such as hotels or restaurants, which in general are not in use because people are working during that season.” In spite of economic gains, up until now there had not been any measurement of the impact of travel upon the health of men and women of retired age. And the results have been surprising, recognized Marín. Of the total interviewed, 85.4% said that they now had more disposition; 78% had turned themselves more sociable; 58% finished with their problems of insomnia; and 42% felt their indigestion had improved, among other benefits.

4,200 elderly citizens participated in the study, and they went through two surveys, both voluntary: one before their journey and the other on their return. It was detected that 45.4% of the tourists were seventy plus years old elderly citizens; 66.2% of the total were women; 60.5% users of the public health system; and 22.9% had private health insurance. As well, 20% had a basic education; a further 47% had completed high school and 21% had a university degree. Of this total, 15.8% lived on their own, and within this group 82% were women. In relation to social conditions, 7.7% admitted that their financial resources did not allow them to cover all of the basic necessities; 43.1% stated that their resources only covered these needs and 49.2% responded that they had no financial problems.

Fear of flying
“We can’t be afraid of flying. The impact of travel is very good, above all from the psychological point of view, because the people go on to sleep better and to feel more disposed to activity. For a long time now it has been said that that people should travel when they feel stressed or depressed”, comments Dr. Marín. Rebeca confirmed what the doctor says. The first time that she traveled by plane was two years ago. “It was something new for me. We went to Arica, and we had to go by plane, and I had never journeyed by plane, since I was afraid. I went with my friend. It was a new experience, shared with people from various places”, she explains.

To journey breaks up the routine, to socalize  with other people, and all of this implies mental efforts and renovation. People go on to make up part of a group and become friendly towards each other, underlines Marín. “Those who suffer from articulation pains see themselves freed from these problems when they travel, whilst others show improvement with their urinary incontinence, and  we don’t  know why. Also, their memory improves because the people forget their problems, combat stress, concentrate and learn new things such as names, places, dates and timetables”, he affirmed. One of the outstanding challenges is to know if these results are long lasting or disappear with time. The only indicator that Marín has at his disposal is that which is measured when the elderly return from their journey: they give tips for traveling to their friends or they travel yet again. That is to say, the trips do them good, and for this reason, they want to continue traveling.

Social capital
Manuel Pereira, the director of the National Service for the Elderly (Senama) of Chile, stated that these journeys mean an investment in health, which makes up tremendous social capital. “By carrying out tourism”, he added, “the elderly leave behind their pills for combating despondency and depression”. Pereira explains that there is a gain in human relationships and in the strengthening of the networks of social support, since there are visits and contacts, thus avoiding that the elderly fall into solitude. As well as this, they widen their cultural knowledge. Rebeca Mondaca remembers with loving care the people whom she met in Arica. They still invite her by phone to parties that they are holding. Or that is to say, there is a widening of social networks way beyond the family circle.

Nevertheless, Manuel Pereira says that there is still a lot to be done for the tourism industry to adapt to the new reality of the aging of the Chilean population. Many hotels have accesses that are inadequate and dangerous; they have no adaptations in the bathrooms and rooms, nor are they concerned in preparing special dishes, without salt or with little sugar since many of the elderly have diabetes. “However, things are advancing”, he says. Rebeca says that the journeys made through Sernatur were different from those that she had taken of her own accord. In the trips exclusively for the senior citizens there was special care taken, personalized medical attention, constant controls and food choices. The next step that should be taken by the tourist industry, according to the Senama director, would be to begin to set out a segmented offer, directed towards the elderly with specific health problems.

Víctor Hugo Durán is a journalist and a specialist in health who writes for the Chilean newspaper, El Mercurio, in which this article was originally published. Authorized reproduction. Translation (Spanish to Portuguese): Damian Kraus.