Use outdoor spaces creatively in residential homes

The idea: Turn an under-used outdoor space in your memory care/residential care home into a creative space that is open to residents with dementia and the outside community -- and so much more.

Hi, my name is Wendy Brewin; I work for the Sensory Trust based in Cornwall, UK and I have been managing the Creative Spaces project for the past 2 years.

I saw the positive impact that being outdoors had on a group of people with dementia about 5 years ago; not just the enhanced connection between people and place but also between individuals. Spending even a short amount of time outside had a significant impact on them. People who were likely to wander around the care home slept better (for a few nights at least), some were more relaxed whilst others spoke more words in one afternoon than they had for weeks in the care home. This led to the development of the Creative Spaces project. 

The aim of the project is to use outdoor environments, in particular care/nursing home gardens, to re-connect older people with dementia with their communities. Social stigma, misconceptions and the fear surrounding dementia all aggravate feelings of isolation and anxiety for people with dementia in residential care. 

For the past two years we have been engaging residents from a local care home with community members through outdoor-related activities and through greater use of outdoor spaces. This care home is located close to all the major amenities in the town; the library, train station, police and fire stations, leisure centre, shops and schools yet it is socially and psychologically isolated from its community. 

We have used outdoor-related activities and the enhancement of the care home gardens to bring residents and staff closer together with people in the community; helping to raise the quality of life for residents, the quality of working life for staff and a better understanding of dementia by the community. 

Staff, residents, relatives, young people and others from the community have worked with us, through the use of activities, conversations and visits to inspirational landscapes to input their ideas into re-designing the garden. Initially under-used, under-maintained, poorly designed, devoid of sensory stimulation (basically it didn't fit the needs of the residents nor the staff) the garden is now a landscape of journeys and destinations to quiet corners or social spaces, places for both passive and active recreation regardless of whether you are a resident, a member of staff or a visitor. 

The outdoor-related activities and use of the garden are now incorporated into people's care plans so that they are a natural part of daily living. Staff are more aware of the support that it provides them; they are finding work less stressful because residents are less stressed as they spend more time outdoors or are involved in an indoor activity that relates to the outdoor environment. 

Activities we have used include 'nature palettes' and 'memory postcards' to engage people in nature and to encourage conversations between people with dementia and people from the community. We have also used seasonal activities to help people with dementia to relate to the time of year; carving pumpkins and entering them into community competitions and making mini Guy Fawkes which are then burnt on a small bonfire. We are as much about making new memories as we are about re-connecting people through old ones. 

Strong friendships have been formed as a result; the young people are growing up without fear of dementia and other amenities in the area are now looking at improving their outdoor spaces to help engage with the residents and with others in the community. 

All it takes is an outdoor space, a few creative ideas and small achievable steps. We're now in our third and final year of the project and looking forward to our first big event in the garden: The Best Carved Pumpkin Competition! 

I hope that this idea will be of interest to anyone involved in caring for people with dementia, whether a care professional or a home carer. Anyone interested can check out the project's page on our website; there are also free downloadable information and activity sheets.

Archived content: The I Can! I Will! content has been archived and is no longer being updated. Information on this page may no longer be accurate or relevant.