Older people living with cognitive impairment often experience barriers to accessing the natural environment

Cognitive impairment research project to help improve lives by increasing contact with nature

New research project ENLIVEN will help older people living with cognitive impairment – including dementia – to be more active and independent and experience a better quality of life through increasing their contact with the natural environment.

The project is led by researchers from the University of Exeter, and is one of seven research projects funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that form the Healthy Ageing Social, Behavioural and Design Research Programme (SBDRP), which is overseen by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The programme is one component of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Healthy Ageing Challenge, which has the overall goal of extending healthy, active life expectancy by five years by 2035.

Research has established that, for people with dementia, the benefits of outdoor activity include maintaining independence and meaningful occupation, promoting social inclusion, stimulating memory and the senses, and enhancing identity and self-esteem.

For those at risk of developing dementia, such as people with mild cognitive impairment or post-stroke cognitive impairment, engagement with nature may help to prevent, reduce or slow cognitive decline.

Although we know outdoor activity is beneficial, older people living with cognitive impairment often experience barriers to accessing the natural environment.

These barriers result not only from problems with physical accessibility, transport costs and safety concerns, but also from cultural, social and psychological obstacles – all of which are exacerbated among those from minority ethnic and disadvantaged groups.

The ENLIVEN team will work with businesses, social enterprises and third sector organisations to develop and test innovative ways of adapting services and improving accessibility, in order to address and overcome the barriers that stop people living with cognitive impairment from accessing nature-based outdoor activities.

ENLIVEN will also aim to reduce inequalities in healthy ageing by including people who have experienced a wide range of structural disadvantages, such as people from minority ethnic groups or from socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

Professor Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Ageing and Dementia and Director of the Centre for Research in Ageing and Cognitive Health (REACH), is the project’s Chief Investigator.

Professor Clare said: “We believe that outdoor activity in nature, whether it’s a walk around a local park or a day trip to a place that attracts visitors, really can enable people with cognitive impairment to live better, richer and ultimately longer lives.

“In ENLIVEN, we aim to work with organisations to put in place innovative ways of facilitating this greater engagement with the natural world by addressing some of the barriers and obstacles people with dementia are facing.”

Dr Joanne Connell, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “There is a growing recognition globally that actively engaging in outdoor-based recreation and experiencing nature in its many forms can contribute to the wellbeing of people with cognitive impairment and dementia.  

“Visitor-facing businesses and organisations have a role to play in helping people with cognitive impairment and their carers to access and enjoy outdoor recreation in natural places and spaces, and we look forward to working with them to address the barriers facing people who are living with these ‘hidden conditions’.”

Date: 8 March 2021