No other animal on the planet comes close to shaping how the world works as humans. We figured out ways to work together in complex societies and fostered innovation that has since outpaced how our brains think. It took our species a few thousand years to reach the point of huge cities populated by coffee-chugging millennials working remote consulting gigs, but the clock of evolution moves slowly. We’re living in 2022 with our brains still stuck in 4,000 B.C.E.
Modern life is great, and it’s unlikely that half of the nearly 8 billion of us would be around today if not for the magic of present-day medicine and the infrastructure of contemporary society. However, this memo has not been received by our minds. Whether we realize it or not, simply spending time in the fresh air has been proven to significantly benefit our general happiness, improve concentration on a given task, and raise self-esteem.
Studies have shown that just spending a few additional hours outside each month can lessen the effects of clinical depression. Now, a nonprofit in Scotland is testing that philosophy for individuals with dementia by organizing outdoor retreats in Cairngorms National Park.
Dementia, Alzheimer’s and degenerative brain diseases, in general, can be incredibly taxing on the patient and their loved ones. The notion of losing one’s memory over time can be a terrifying thought to any of us, and those who are unfortunate enough to go through that process must withstand a great deal of stress. When the Alzheimer Scotland organization first debuted this idea in 2017, the thought was that a combination of nature’s calming effects and a few simple camp-related activities would prove therapeutic for an extremely anxious demographic.
The treatment turned out to be a massive success. That first day brought in 18 patients who didn’t have to focus on their condition for a few hours of sitting by the campfire and telling stories.
“It felt like people were given an opportunity to reconnect with something that was hugely missing in their lives,” said Gillian Councill, one of the organizers.
In the five years since, the setup has evolved to include a host of outdoor activities like birdwatching, swimming, and wood carving and has produced a wait list that gets bigger by the day. Part of this is due to the efficacy. Most forms of dementia treatment lose patients as their condition worsens, but simply being in the group and outside has proven incredibly beneficial for even the longest-tenured patients. “If people might struggle to engage with a particular activity, that didn’t really matter,” said Alzheimer Scotland’s Kenny Wright. “They benefited a lot from that and felt part of something, I think.”
Now the organization is taking things to the next level. In September, Alzheimer Scotland is opening its long-awaited permanent outdoor treatment center in Cairngorms National Park.
The goal is to provide access to many more patients than before on a drop-in basis five days per week. The activities will continue with additional programs involving canoeing and mountain biking classes and an easily identifiable network of hiking trails.
It’s a significant investment and shows great care for helping those suffering from these conditions remember what they can accomplish. “When people get a diagnosis, sometimes it can feel like everything’s negative, and there’s a focus on loss and what you can’t do,” said Councill. “I suppose it’s trying to turn that around a little bit and focus on what people can still do.”