Nature’s Therapy

By David Jolley

My attention was drawn to a feature in The Times of April 4th which advises of the benefits of a walk in the park:

The stimulus for the Times Science Editor, Rhys Blakely, to write was a study of cortisol and other stress hormones amongst people with and without exposure to urban nature:

It is quite wonderful what can be achieved by modern science and what interest and satisfaction we get from laboratory studies and measures.

Jane Gilliard and Mary Marshall had edited an impressive collection of papers: ‘Fresh Air on my face’ for Jessica Kingsley 2011 addressing similar issues from a number of perspectives.

Time in the outdoors, especially in places which give you green grass, trees, flowers and the birds, insects and other animals which find their homes there, is therapeutic. Outings are usually accompanied by gentle physical exercise – walking as a minimum – and by social interaction if you go with someone else – and people watching and serendipitous conversations with passers-by. It is an accumulator winner.

Yet we know that many older people, especially those with dementia, are not able to get out and about much. One report is that the average time out doors for a care home resident is less than two minutes a week – Less than two minutes a week!

We can become so distracted by the sciences of biochemistry and pharmacology that we ignore more powerful and modifiable approaches to improve life experience. Anti-psychotic medication is issued with a blanket hazard notice for the statistically significant reduction of life expectation associated with prescriptions to people with dementia: so many thousands of people are said to die unnecessarily. But lack of music and fresh air are just as damaging – the evidence is there. What can we do about it?

Families will always try to give people time for outings. Increased frailty makes the practicalities more difficult to achieve, but even a short walk with a Zimmer frame or a ride in the wheel chair, is valuable and valued. Care Homes face a challenge, but the best homes do make time outdoors a priority. They will ensure their garden is a good place for residents and visitors to spend time in. They may organise regular walks in their local park. This is time and person expensive. It carries a degree of risk. In most homes, the staff will require support from volunteers and visitors to make this therapy possible. But it can be done.

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