The joy of being outdoors
Former carer Beth Britton writes about how getting outside was a great tonic for her and her dad during his years in care homes with dementia.
So many of my happiest memories of my dad’s latter years with dementia revolve around being outside with him. We were lucky that the care home he spent the majority of his last nine years in was in a rural location, with a big garden and footpaths beyond the home for taking dad out in his wheelchair.
My dad was very much an outside person. He’d spent his life as a farmer and his main hobby was gardening, not just at home but through maintaining huge allotments to grow vegetables throughout my young childhood. For dad, being indoors wasn’t his preferred environment, but the staff in his care home often found it difficult to find time to get my dad (and other residents who wanted to be outside) into the garden.
Countless times we’d go to visit and would need to find dad a wheelchair, help him to get an extra jumper on, and get some help to move dad into his wheelchair. Other residents without visiting families often looked on, and I can only imagine that they were perhaps wishing to be outside too. Whilst summertime was when we went outside with dad the most (we’d sit in the garden, dad with his panama hat on, having tea and relaxing) we would go outside in cooler weather too. So long as dad was well it just meant wearing more layers, and us pushing his wheelchair around to keep us all on the move and warmer.
The care home would sometime arrange outings – I recall visits to a model village and a working farm amongst them – but whilst my dad enjoyed these I’m not sure they were preferred to quiet time in the garden.
Outings, especially in these post-COVID-lockdown times, can sometimes be a sensory overload of crowds, movement and noise. Many people living in care homes have become conditioned to being within the care home building or grounds due to lockdown, and whilst some residents may welcome the chance to go on trips to attractions or shops there are definitely some people who will feel anxious and uncomfortable too. Even in my dad’s care home, long before any of us had heard of COVID (my dad died in April 2012), there were residents who would never go into the garden, even when the staff had set up lunch or tea outside. For these individuals their dementia had made them very fearful of larger spaces, and they only felt comfortable in the confines of their room or the lounge/dining area.
My advice to families, whether your loved one likes to be outside or not, would be to think about how to enjoy nature together – all year round – in ways your loved one feels most comfortable with. Plants can be enjoyed inside or outside, gardening can be done inside or outside (think table-top planting and potting), different textures (leaves/stones/sand/soil etc) and smells (think aromatherapy) can be explored inside or outside, and watching birds or wildlife is often as easily done from a window as it is outside. Try not to see boundaries, but instead see possibilities and be as creative as possible.
Why? Because nature is fantastic for helping us to ‘Take notice’, which is one of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing , and overall embracing nature in all its forms is heavily linked to improved mental health. On an anecdotal personal level, I know from the time I spent in nature with my dad that there is something very calming about that environment. I’d often sit in the garden with my dad holding hands as he napped in his panama hat, close my eyes myself, and almost forget dad had dementia for a while. We were just enjoying the moment, with the warmth of the sun on our faces and only birdsong and the rustle of the trees to listen to. That – more than any other experience – was priceless for me, and now my dad’s gone they are very precious memories.
As I said in my blog, ‘The sun is out’.
Nothing really beats exploring the great outdoors with your relative, and if they love it as much as my dad did, you will be so glad that you had that experience together.
Beth Britton is an award-winning content creator, consultant, trainer, mentor, campaigner and speaker who is an expert in ageing, health and social care https://www.bethbritton.com.