Nature gave Mum and me countless ‘moments of joy on the Alzheimer’s journey’, as Jolene Brackey puts it in her wonderful book. Whether it was enjoying the physical benefits of walking along the river in the fresh air and sunshine, having a cup of tea in the shade of a tree, or imagining creatures in the clouds, nature was always part of our times together.
It was these experiences that inspired Dementia Connections to create ‘Nurtured by Nature’, a workshop for those who care for people living with dementia. In this workshop, participants experience and reflect on the value of a range of nature-based activities for themselves and the people they care for.
Workshops are opportunities to learn from and be inspired by one another. As a facilitator, I always come away with new insights and ideas. Here are some gems shared by dementia care professionals at a workshop held in Johannesburg in May.
On the feeling of being in nature …
- I’ve never felt such a silence and sense of belonging in nature before. I want to share this sense of belonging with people who feel lost and alone.
- I’m taking home the peace and tranquillity that nature brings.
On the value of nature to caregivers …
- We work long hours and sometimes it feels like we can’t even manage a five-minute break. Then you feel like you’re losing it. You need to be calm so that you don’t become irritable. It’s important to take that five minutes of peace.
- I will eat my lunch away from my desk, and personally reconnect with nature. I will take the feeling back and encourage my colleagues to take five-minute breaks, sense what is around us, and relax and get calm in the midst of nature.
On the value of nature to people living with dementia …
- I had never really noticed nature before I started working with people living with dementia and noticed how nature calmed them and brought them peace.
- Sometimes you don’t need a pill; you can use nature.
On getting to know what brings joy to elders in our care …
- Make time to interview residents in depth before they move into the care home. Find out who they are, what is unique about them, and what brings them joy.
- Get to know the residents and engage with them in ways that are relevant to their lives. Get to know what makes them happy so that they will enjoy what they are doing.
On practical ways to make nature part of the care culture …
- Connect and engage more with people one-on-one. Take them out if they want to go. If they don’t want to go out, take nature to them. Bring in pets and pot-plants.
- Make nature part of the routine of people living with dementia, so that they know they will go out and expect it.
- Make time to sit and relax in nature. It calms you down and you feel the impact.
- When we take residents out for a walk, let’s not just think of it as physical exercise. Let’s make these walks more stimulating and encouraging by talking with the resident and pointing out things. Encourage them to stop, sense and enjoy their surroundings: look, touch, feel and smell.
- Take people outside where they can feel the sun, enjoy the fresh air, admire the flowers, listen to the birds, and feel open and free. Invite them to walk barefoot … watch the night sky …
Stories of good practice that inspired us …
- Activities at care homes included a birding group, nature outings, and getting residents involved in preparing food for regular picnics on Fridays.
- A carer planted vegetables amongst the flowers in a resident’s garden. The resident loved to watch her caring for the garden.
- One couple developed a dementia-friendly garden at their retirement village to encourage people to experience nature with their senses and enjoy the fresh air. After the workshop they decided to start a garden on an upstairs balcony to benefit people living upstairs who were unable to visit the garden.
Mediating the nature connection experience …
One of the valuable insights from this workshop was that ‘connecting with nature’ is not necessarily automatic; we may need another person to mediate the nature experience for us. The care partner has a valuable role to play in helping the person living with dementia to engage with nature. They can do this by drawing attention to phenomena and responding to things that the person notices. Familiar experiences in nature provide many opportunities for sensory appreciation and reminiscence. Sharing experiences in nature allows the person with dementia to enjoy a double connection – both with nature and with a caring human being.
“Connecting to nature was a calming, relaxing, uplifting and spiritual experience.
It fulfilled my need to relax and be re-energised.”