Recent research suggests that the outdoors can contribute directly to feelings of well being and support recovery from many disorders. There hasn’t been much research in the UK about the benefits of being outdoors if you have dementia. However the benefits are very clear to the providers of such activities at care farms where people with dementia report their enjoyment and eagerness to get out there whatever the weather.
Occupational therapists can be considered as a fairly obscure profession, especially if you have never needed the expertise they provide. Their ethos in relation to dementia care is one of meaningful activity. Progress in maintaining mobility and mental health are also key but the reality is that dementia is a progressive illness. Maintaining health and well being is an aspiration most of us would wish for. In relation to dementia this aspiration can be seen as somewhat fanciful especially as dementia may show itself as challenging behaviours and generally difficult for all. But having dementia need not mean a life of despair and difficulty. Engaging in meaningful activity can support better mental health and a sense of well being by mitigating the more negative aspects of having dementia.
The effects of dementia can be somewhat “dampened” or “masked” by the provision of meaningful activities which are subtly supportive but enable the person with dementia to work alongside others. Take Bill (not his real name) who supervised me in the art of arranging primroses by colour in the wheelbarrow as part of a planting scheme. Bill has a very generous character and clearly enjoys the company of other people. He is also happy helping around the farm. It’s easy to see how much pleasure Bill derives from spending his time at the farm; there are always new things to discuss and jokes to make. He regards himself as a working member of the team and is keen to tell me about his plans for the future animals. It is hard to not imagine Bill at the farm.
Perhaps care farms and places which are primarily focused on the doing rather than the not doing are ways forward for dementia care. As one therapist told me several years ago we are too keen to worry about the risks than to let older people live their lives. By contrast the field of learning disabilities seeks to enable living with risk. Maybe dementia care could learn from many of the approaches promoted in the field of learning disabilities?