It is common knowledge that spending time outdoors is good for our physical and mental health, and yet many people with dementia live most of their lives indoors.
Activities like walking, swimming and games develop physical fitness, stamina, strength and balance. Exercise improves a person’s mobility and reduces the risk of falls. It also stimulates the appetite, which often declines with dementia, leading to people becoming malnourished.
Fresh air really is good for us! Indoor air is often laden with chemicals from paint, furnishings and cleaning materials, as well as ‘germs’ like viruses and bacteria. Furthermore, the value of a daily dose of sunlight should not be underestimated. Sun on the skin stimulates the production of Vitamin D, which is vital for all our cells, and essential to building healthy bones and muscles.
Insomnia is a problem amongst many older people; but being exposed to morning sunlight re-sets our body clock, improving sleep patterns. So, rather than administering sleeping tablets, a morning walk may help to restore our elders’ natural sleep-wake rhythms.
The outdoors is not only good for our physical health; it benefits us mentally and emotionally as well. As dementia erodes a person’s thinking processes, they often become more emotionally sensitive and spontaneous. Being unable to tell others what they want or don’t want, people with dementia may become frustrated at not being understood, resulting in uncharacteristic outbursts or aggression.
Spending time in nature has been shown to improve a person’s mood. In one scientific study, people with dementia who spent time outdoors reported that they felt happy, calm, relaxed and free, and less depressed, anxious and stressed. This in turn resulted in fewer challenging behaviours like agitation, sun-downing, pacing, exit-seeking, and aggression.
There is growing concern about the use of neuro-psychiatric drugs to treat people with dementia. In most cases, ‘difficult behaviours’ are reactions to not having needs met. People may be trying to communicate that they are experiencing pain, discomfort, frustration or boredom; but instead of their needs being responded to, they are given drugs to pacify or restrain them. All drugs have side-effects, and these can be particularly devastating in the case of frail elders. Anti-psychotics and benzodiazepines, for example, are known to increase the risk of falls, and may even worsen cognitive function in people with dementia.
There is growing interest in non-pharmacological treatments of mood and behavioural issues in people with dementia. In one study, residents of a dementia care home who had access to the garden reduced their need for antidepressants and antipsychotics, and this resulted in a 30% decrease in the number and severity of falls.
Results like this are really encouraging – and not only for people with dementia. Let’s all get outside and enjoy a daily dose of Nature’s healing power!