Dementia Network Calgary has partnered with Parks Foundation Calgary to create a safe outdoor space for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The project is in the early stages with design and a location in development, though construction could begin in 2024.
Kim Brundit with Dementia Network Calgary says creating a dementia-inclusive park is an important step to reducing stigma around the disease.
“What we heard from caregivers and people is they want a place where they can feel safe, to feel normal and included. They can meet other people that are on the same journey they are, or get together with their family for a picnic,” she said. “One of the biggest problems with the stigma is it makes people not seek out social interaction.”
Brundit says there needs to be a shift in how society treats people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, especially as populations are projected to increase.
The number of Canadians living with dementia is expected to reach close to one million people by 2030, according to a study from the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. With a younger population, Alberta leads all other provinces with more than 200,000 people expected to be living with the disease by 2050.
“Everything from restaurants, to banks, to grocery stores and airports--we’re all going to have to learn how to better include people living with dementia and their caregivers.”
Dr. Dallas Seitz, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Calgary, is studying how being in nature affects people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The three-year study called Nature Connections is recruiting people living with dementia and their caregivers to participate in outdoor activities during their own time over eight weeks.
“Even if you’re not exercising strenuously, there are still health benefits of being outdoors. People say they feel calmer and more rejuvenated,” Seitz said. “It makes sense this would be very helpful for people with memory problems or dementia.”
After spending time outdoors, researchers will then assess how being in nature affects participants’ mood and thinking, both for people with dementia and their caregivers, Seitz explains. Blood tests can also track markers of stress and inflammation during the trial.
However, current park spaces present several barriers for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, Seitz says.
“There are some great parks in Calgary, but none are set up for people with dementia,” he said. “We know there are specific considerations that need to be taken into account.”
For example, picnic benches are difficult to get in for people with mobility issues, signage or maps at parks can be lacking or confusing, porta-potties are inaccessible and shelter spaces can be few and far between.
Instead, imagine a park with wider, brightly coloured pathways and maps that are easier to understand, with hedges planted along the trail to keep people on course. Walking along the trail, a person could stop by a music concert in the park, or play a game that stimulates their brain. Or they could simply sit down and listen to the birds during the warmer months.
Dr. David Hogan is a specialist in geriatric medicine at the University of Calgary. He says there needs to be more of a focus on prevention and quality of life for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients rather than a ‘cure'.
“When we think of research for Alzheimer's disease, we often focus solely on looking for cures. But it's equally important to look at care,” Hogan said. “How can we improve the care and quality of life of people with dementia, and help them cope and deal with this in the best way possible?”
Research from the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care suggests one-third of dementia cases can be prevented by tackling nine risk factors, including obesity, physical inactivity, late-life depression, and social isolation.
“We should be supporting all forms of research, prevention, and treatment, but also ways of enhancing the quality of life for an individual and the family of a person who has developed dementia.”
To participate in Dr. Seitz’s research study Nature Connections, call 403-210-6867 or email [email protected].