by Raymond Houle
Getting outdoors can improve physical health, mood, and sleep for individuals with AD, and activities and environments that provide opportunities for fresh air, natural light, and exercise are increasingly identified as important aspects of good dementia care.
Many studies have found that regular walking improves mobility and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses in older adults. Another article in this issue of Dimensions describes the benefits of an exercise and walking program in an investigation led by UW ADRC researcher Dr. Linda Teri. Other research directed by UW faculty member Dr. Susan McCurry has shown that walking and exposure to outdoor light can improve both sleep and mood in people with AD and their caregivers. Gardening has also been found to be associated with positive mood shifts, such as increased joy, peacefulness, and tranquility. Outdoor activities such as raking leaves, weeding, or hanging clothes on a clothesline may have similar effects, and can stimulate individuals' long-term memories of pleasant times. Sensory stimulation provided by weather, wildlife, flowers, plants, and trees may also be therapeutic for a person with AD, and may help maintain their connection with the outside world.
Providing a safe and stimulating outdoor environment for a person with AD may present some challenges. A garden center can help identify plants that are non-toxic and non-allergenic. Power tools such as chainsaws or hedge trimmers should be kept in a locked cabinet, and the person with dementia will need to be monitored while outdoors to ensure he or she doesn't leave the area or engage in unsafe behaviors. Once safety is addressed, however, the outdoors can be a wonderful and life-enhancing environment for people with dementia and their caregivers, so go ahead and start planning that spring garden.