How much do you notice the birds and wildlife that visit your garden, and the effect of the changing seasons on our parks and the countryside? The psychological benefits of connecting with nature are well researched. Many studies have demonstrated that engaging with nature makes people healthier and happier.
In 2015, researchers at Derby University conducted a month-long nature challenge involving people ‘doing something wild’ every day. Participants were surveyed to investigate how they interacted with nature and how they felt about their health and happiness before the challenge started, at the end of the challenge, and two months after it had finished.
Analysis of the results showed a statistically significant increase in people’s health, happiness, connection to nature – and active nature behaviours (such as feeding the birds and planting flowers for bees) -sustained throughout the challenge and for several months after the challenge had been completed.
For many of us, access to outside spaces and the natural world is part of our everyday lives and something that we take for granted, but for many older people and those living with dementia, venturing outdoors, exploring the wild environment, is much more challenging.
The natural world can be life changing for people with chronic health conditions. Exposure to nature has an impact on physical health – reducing hypertension, respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; and on mental wellbeing – improving mood, reducing anxiety, restoring attention capacity and providing a remedy for mental fatigue.
Analysis of the results showed a statistically significant increase in people’s health, happiness, connection to nature
Feeling a part of nature has also been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, spiritual wellbeing, mindfulness and lower cognitive anxiety.
How can we overcome the barriers that older people and people with dementia face in connecting with nature?
Some of the reason why older people and people with dementia find it difficult to engage in nature-inspired activities include: mobility problems, feeling the cold or the heat, needing the toilet often, anxiety, sensory impairments, loss of confidence, lack of purpose, fatigue.
The onus is on care providers, families and friends to find ways to overcome these obstacles and find ways to support connection with nature.
Some ideas for you:
- Bring the outside in – the natural world offers its resources to us in many varied ways. Flowers, foliage, vegetables and fruit grown in the garden, pebbles and shells from the beach. Collect natural materials eg leaves, flowers, feathers, tree bark, moss, to decorate your living space or use in art projects.
- Sit outside in the garden or near an open window – feel the freshness of the air, in all seasons.
- Contribute to preserving the natural world – engaging in nature-preserving activities gives people with dementia (and all people) a sense of purpose and contribution. Wildlife organisations such as the Woodland Trust and RSPB gather data annually, relying on ‘Citizen Scientists’ to observe what is happening in the countryside around them or their gardens.
- Make nature sociable – a walk in the park is far more enjoyable with a companion. Take time to notice nature on everyday walks and visits to nature attractions, taking pictures as a record and to prompt reminiscence.
- Stimulate all the senses – notice natural aromas and sounds, as well as what you see with your eyes. Use touch and taste too when it’s safe to do so. The feel of a tree bark or the sand between your toes; the smell of fragrant flowers, the sound of birdsong. Sensory stimulation helps to lift mood and improve feeling of hopefulness.
- Grow plants or flowers indoors and on windowsills – the Royal Horticultural Society offers tips and advice.
There are many community projects that offer health promoting activities and support people to engage meaningfully with the natural world.
Charlotte Overton-Hart is Project Lead for ‘Dementia Inclusive Gardening’ (DIG) on allotment Plot 22 in Brighton. Charlotte has written about her work, click here to read her blog about DIG published in 2018.
The Sensory Trust in Cornwall offer a project called Creative Spaces to encourage creativity, conversation and enjoyment for people with dementia. A recent evaluation of the impact of this project found that the benefits to people living with dementia relate to improvements in physical, mental and social well-being.
The project bore witness to growth in confidence and happiness in individuals with dementia, and the formation of long-lasting friendships. The project helped people develop coping strategies to deal with tough periods in their lives and galvanised them to be more physically active, develop new shared interests and engage in community activities.
Family carers were encouraged to learn new ways to share meaningful times with those with dementia being cared for; plus the project provided access to informal support through meeting and sharing with other carers in similar situations.
As it is summer now, the warmer weather makes it easier for people with dementia to experience the outdoors. Fresh air and exercise promote good health for everyone, and this is nonetheless important for people living with dementia. Regular exercise helps to counteract the damaging effects of dementia.
If you are involved with a project that enables you and the person you care for to take part in outdoor activities, we would be pleased to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know how nature enhances the quality of your life.