On the 11 December the UK hosted a G8 Summit aimed at coordinating a global initiative on dementia. Words such as “ticking time bomb”, “tsunami” and “looming epidemic” have been banded around by politicians, reporters and medical experts alike, and probably with good reason. Today there are some 44 million people worldwide living with dementia in one form or another. Nearly a million of those live in the UK, a figure which equates in a cost to the country of some £23 billion a year. By 2050 the numbers worldwide are set to treble and there is a very real fear that some countries will simply be unable to cope. In a nutshell, dementia is gearing up to become the biggest health and care issue of a generation.
Dementia is a term that encompasses some 100 different diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is probably the most well recognised. Simply put, it describes the decline of the mental abilities, causing anyone living with it to lose the ability to function in ways that most of us take for granted – language, mental agility, memory, judgement etc. Sadly it is also incurable. It can however be controlled and recent evidence suggests that those struggling to cope with dementia can benefit greatly from a little outdoor activity and contact with nature. Two years ago I knew very little about dementia, its causes or its effects. That was until a friend approached me about putting together a trip on the Isle of Man for a dementia group. She and her husband had set up a community enterprise called Dementia Adventure, which was working to provide training, research and a refreshingly innovative approach to dementia care. Starting with short walks around the countryside of South East England, they had progressed on to sailing weekends and were now spreading their wings even farther with a trip across the Irish Sea…which was where I came in.
The brief was very specific – not too much walking, not too much intensive culture and just enough interest to keep it fresh. Now, for someone who up to that point had never even met anyone with dementia, this was to prove quite a challenge. In the end we went with boat trips and steam trains, coastal views, castles and award-winning ice cream. The trip proved to be a resounding success, in spite of driving rain, howling gales and a royal visit! What I found incredible though was the remarkable change that the week brought about in the group. Research has shown that regular contact with nature may be the strongest and most easily accessible therapy available in the treatment of dementia. Apparently it can enable individuals living with dementia to experience a ‘dampening down’ or even an absence of their dementia related symptoms. From what I saw during that short week, and judging by the smiles that were breaking out across previously confused faces, I could only concur.
David Cameron has described dementia as a disease that: “…steals lives, wrecks families and breaks hearts.” It is one of modern life’s cruellest diseases, failing to discriminate between sex, class or creed. But people with dementia don’t need to be locked away. They are not a danger. They are parents and grandparents, husbands and wives. They are no different from you and me, they just need a little more patience and a little more consideration. And if current projections are to be believed, then my timely introduction to the disease is going to be repeated amongst many more of us in the years ahead.
Two years on and Dementia Adventure are a multi award winning enterprise, with a growing international reputation and a continuing message of hope for the future. For more information check out their website at www.dementiaadventure.co.uk, or give Lucy or Neil a ring on 01245 230661.
To learn a little more about the health benefits associated with a more hands on approach towards dementia and the natural environment, take a look at their latest research on the subject, produced in conjunction with Natural England and the Woodland Trust: www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/enjoying/linkingpeople/outdoorsforall/g8-dementia-summit-feature.aspx