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How to Get People with Dementia Enjoying the Outdoors

Annie Pollock, Associate Consultant, Architect and Landscape Architect from the HammondCare Dementia Centre shares ways to encourage older people and people with dementia to enjoy the outdoors.

Why should we encourage people with dementia to go outdoors?

  • Being indoors for too long can become stuffy, busy and noisy 
  • Being outdoors provides fresh air
  • Being outdoors helps relieve stresses and tensions and improves mood
  • Activities and exercise improve muscle tone and hand-eye co-ordination
  • Exposure to direct sunlight (10 minutes without sunblock) boosts vitamin D
  • Plants, animals, wildlife, weather and the changing seasons all help stimulate memories

How do we make it easy?

Life is easier for older people and those with dementia when their environment makes sense. A view to the outdoors and an obvious door leading to it, unlocked, with a comfortable and easy-to use handle will help attract people out, whereas a locked door or one which is not easily seen will cause distress.

Many people with dementia have visuospatial problems, so outdoor surfaces should be plain coloured, the same tone as the indoor surfacing. It’s also really useful to clearly sign the way to the nearest toilet, as fear of being ‘caught short’ can be a disincentive to going outdoors. 

Tips:

  • A view of outside
  • A visible, obvious unlocked door
  • A door handle that is easy to see and use will all help people to go outdoors
  • Locked doors, fire exits or doors that are hard to see can cause distress
  • Indoor and outdoor ground surfaces a similar and plain tone throughout
  • A well-signed, easy-to-find toilet is essential

So how do we make the outdoors appealing?

  • Find out about the person with dementia: where they lived, what they did, their culture and background. These will all affect their expectations and experience of outdoor spaces.
  • Some people enjoy ‘hands-on’ gardening; others may be happy just to watch. It’s important to provide for both.
  • Many people love to grow plants. Harvesting the produce can lead to activities such as flower arranging, artwork, cooking and celebrations such as ‘Harvest Festival’.
  • Men may have different needs, e.g. a garden shed is valuable for pottering and reminiscing; a bird table, chicken run or rabbit hutch may reinforce early memories of caring for animals.

How do we make the garden safe?

  • Being safe outdoors is central to good design; a familiar, reassuring design can reduce anxiety and confusion.
  • Clear signage with a graphic helps with ‘wayfinding’; some people find words alone difficult to make sense of.
  • Fencing keeps those safe who might wish to ‘escape’; it can also provide shelter from noise and the elements.
  • Light surfaces can cause glare and structures such as pergolas may create dark shadows. Both are problematic as ageing eyes don’t adjust to changes in light level as fast as young eyes do. Strong shadows may look like changes in level too.
  • Plants need to be safe so people can touch, smell and taste without harm.

How do we create a comfortable place to spend time in?

  • Design for sun, shade and shelter, but remember that buildings and mature trees around the site can affect this.
  • Comfortable, solid seating with robust arms helps people to get up and down. Seats placed in line of sight, one to the next, will encourage people to walk around the garden
  • Outdoor structures, (parasols, gazebos, verandas, conservatories, summerhouses, greenhouses) encourage garden use in all weathers. Accessible storage for outdoor clothing is helpful too.
  • Protection from the midday summer sun is vital – older people can burn quickly, yet be unaware.
  • Many older people have additional health problems, so include design features that help, e.g. raised planters of varied heights for working at, sitting or standing
  • Don't forget the staff too – they need somewhere outdoor to get peace and quiet in their time off.
You might be interested in our book Designing Outdoor Spaces for People with Dementia. Buy it today!

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