The calming effect of contact with nature
Author: Billy Pringle
Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers on New South Wales’ mid-north coast are experiencing the benefits of exposure to natural materials and environments.
For the past two years a volunteer at Kempsey Men’s Shed in northern NSW has been working with residents at local nursing homes to make wooden toys for children living in Angola, Africa.
Dave Smith uses recycled timber from industrial pallets, which is then cut and sanded into shape at the Men’s Shed. He runs fortnightly craft classes for aged care residents with Alzheimer’s disease, and enlists their help to paint the toys.
What started as a 15 hour a week hobby for Mr Smith has become like a full time job.
“I have to take along 50 helicopters every time I visit because they paint them so quickly,” he said.
“I had three elderly ladies, one was 93 years old, and they used to race each other. They would say ‘I’ve done 15 today, how many have you done?’
While Mr Smith started the project to help children in Africa, he has become passionate about working with Alzheimer’s sufferers.
“Alzheimer’s disease is not very easy to relate to and it’s a very sad thing to see people you care about suffering from it,” he said.
“I have become very close with these people, and it’s wonderful to see them enjoying contributing to something they believe is very important.”
Studies have found that the use of wood products can have positive psychological and physiological impacts, including lower blood pressure and heart rate. In particular, exposure to wood emulates time spent in nature and can produce similar effects.
Nearby in Port Macquarie, Australia’s first dementia-friendly garden has opened recently to provide an environment aimed at reducing anxiety for local dementia sufferers.
Port Macquarie has one of the highest rates of dementia in the country, due in part to its appeal as a retirement haven. The garden is designed to reduce stress, an important treatment for people with dementia who can often experience anxiety and agitation. The inclusion of sensory components including a texture wall, water features and sand and pebble beds can also help to stimulate positive memories.
University of Queensland dementia research development fellow Theresa Scott said there was an existing body of research that showed sensory gardens were effective in reducing heart rate and blood pressure and improving morale.
“We see evidence of a relaxation response to being in nature,” Dr Scott said.
“There is also evidence to suggest smelling, seeing and hearing nature will be linked to recalling positive memories.”
“Some of our strongest memories are tied to the olfactory part of the brain that is responsible for scent and smelling.”
Gary Thomas, program manager with Alzheimer’s Australia in Port Macquarie said the garden had already made a difference in the lives of local patients.
“In one of the areas there are two seats set up… one has beach sand under it and another pebbles,” he said.
“A gentleman who has dementia came through yesterday and said ‘I’d love to take my shoes off and put my feet in the sand’, which is exactly what it is meant for.”
“And then someone said to him ‘What about the pebbles?’ and he said ‘Oh no, that reminds me of Scotland where I grew up. I like the Australian beach sand much better’.”
- Choose responsibly sourced, certified wood for your next building project or furniture purchase. Not only can it reduce stress and anxiety, it is the only building material that helps to tackle climate change
- Check out Planet Ark’s Wood – Nature Inspired Design report
- Where possible, spend time outdoors and encourage friends and family to do the same
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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.
Billy has completed a Masters in Discourse and Social Theory and is a frequent volunteer and supporter of Planet Ark.
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