Saturday, April 20, 2024

Dementia walks harness the healing power of nature

Combining the efforts of area parks and recreation departments, senior centers and Texas Master Naturalists with an organization called Dementia Friendly Denton County, people with memory loss and their caregivers have a way to enjoy the outdoors.

The six-week Wellness in Nature program consists of guided walks throughout parks in Flower Mound, Denton, Lewisville, and Carrollton in the spring and fall. The next round in Flower Mound runs on Thursday mornings from 10-11 a.m. starting Thursday, April 11 at Rheudasil, Heritage, and Glenwick parks.

The walks began in Denton several years ago. Flower Mound was added last year and Lewisville and Carrollton joined this year.

“This was developed to provide a therapeutic/beneficial program so folks with dementia and their caregivers could get outside in nature,” said Michele Steigleder, a Highland Village resident and longtime Dementia Friendly Denton County (DFDC) board member who serves as the program’s coordinator.

A private practice psychologist who specializes in dementia, Steigleder has written curriculum for DFDC on how to communicate with people with dementia. She also leads the caregiver group for the Stepping Stones initiative at the Flower Mound Senior Center.

“It’s about getting these folks out in nature and engaging their senses,” said Matt Brown of Flower Mound, a self-proclaimed “nature nut” who serves as Master Naturalist coordinator scheduling the 5-7 Elm Fork Chapter master naturalists who lead the excursions. “This program had been going on for a while. I brought a little more structure and would like to scale it across the state.”

To help fuel that potential growth, Steigleder and Brown are creating a how-to instructional guidebook to provide other communities with the tools needed to conduct their own walks. Steigleder believes Denton County is the first in the nation to conduct the walks.

“We have appropriate criteria for these parks to conduct these walks,” said Brown, whose mother in Nebraska has Alzheimer’s. “They need to be dementia friendly with a path that’s easily walkable. It’s got to have interesting features. We don’t need miles and miles as we don’t cover a lot of ground in an hour.

“It’s really about getting engaged in nature. It’s not vigorous exercise.”

How extensive is dementia? Consider these facts:

  • About 60 million people worldwide have dementia.
  • More than 6 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s (one form of dementia).
  • 500,000 are living with it in Texas.
  • 80% of people with dementia live at home.
  • 25% of caregivers provide care for an aging parent and children.
  • It is the 7th leading cause of death and one of the most expensive and time-consuming.
  • The numbers are expected to triple by 2050.

That’s why the walks are so important, Brown said, citing the 22 people who have been on the walks so far. Besides people from Dementia Friendly and Texas Master Naturalists, volunteers at each site contribute to the program.

“We emphasize, don’t be overly excited,” Brown said. “During these one-hour walks silence is golden. We want to smell the smells and hear the sounds in addition to gaining a little bit of knowledge.”

“It’s very, very important to combine multiple senses to engage folks with dementia,” Steigleder said. “You hear more and more about how loneliness kills. You have these particular folks and their caregivers can very, very easily become shut-ins. That sort of social neglect and withdrawal and lack of stimulation can accelerate the experience of the illness. So, this is really novel.”

For more information, email [email protected], call 940-453-9784 or visit dementiafriendlydentoncounty.org.

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