The inspiration for the charity which Neil Mapes launched with his wife, Lucy Harding, in 2009 goes back a long way. In his childhood he saw the devastating effects that dementia can inflict on people because three of his four grandparents suffered from it – as did one of Lucy’s.
It was this experience of dementia – he was only six when the first of his grandparents developed the condition – that prompted him to study psychology for his degree at Aston University. He wanted to learn more about the mind. In his second year work placement, he was in part of an NHS unit dealing with older people in their own homes and care homes.
On graduation he returned to the NHS as a clinical psychologist dealing with older people, but left after 18 months feeling hemmed in and restrained from devising new approaches to dementia. The charity which he joined, Alzheimer’s Concern, in Ealing, London, was far more imaginative and gave him leeway to introduce innovations.
In two separate three year terms – with a two year break between them working as a group leader of overseas adventure holidays – he introduced a number of innovations including: advocacy services for people suffering from dementia; a monthly Alzheimer’s cafe where patients could meet psychiatrists on a less formal basis; an outreach service for young people with memory problems; and outdoor activities for people aged 36 to 50 – week-end walks; trips on the Thames; pub lunches.
In the meantime, having met his wife, who was operations manager of the company providing adventure holidays who had employed him – the two began thinking of introducing adventure holidays for people with dementia. In April 2009, four years after their marriage, Dementia Adventure was registered as a community interest company. In the subsequent four years its remit has widened beyond adventure holidays to advising care homes to make more use of outdoor activities; running training courses to make care home staff more confident about such activities; a consultancy service; along with research reports on the benefits of connecting people with dementia with nature.
The company has developed strong links with the Woodland Trust – both in England and Scotland. All this neatly coincided with a new emphasis in the Government’s 2009 national dementia strategy to promote ‘living well with dementia’.
Neil has written widely on the issue. He was the first fellow to successfully complete the 2010 Clore Social Leadership programme. This led to a 20-page research report, based on interviews with dementia patients and experts on the disease – about connecting patients with nature. The patient interviews are poignant. ‘Somebody has pulled the plug on my life,’ said one. Another noted: ‘ I was the brainy one, its melted now, its melted my heart.’
This 2011 report was followed by a practical guide this year – ‘Wood if we could’ – that sets out three separate groups of benefits: physical (improved sleep, increased verbal communication, better dietary intake); emotional (enhanced mood, stronger sense of self, having more control); and social (sense of belonging, community activity, positive social encounters).
Neil is extremely articulate on the subject. As he argues in his Clore report, (‘Living with dementia and connecting with nature – looking back and stepping forwards’): ‘There is a fundamental and ancient connection we all have with nature and a strong sense of place. This emotional connection with, and need for nature, remains present in the dementia process. ‘Living well with dementia’ is a phrase we are beginning to better understand and living well will depend on regular contact with nature.’ He adds ‘Although more research is needed we already have loads of evidence that walking outside can help slow up dementia deterioration.’ He also notes in too many care homes people never get outside, let alone walk in woods.
Yet, over half of us live within 4km of a wood. There are over 11,500 woods in the UK which welcome visitors, while the website visitwoods.org.uk make it easier than ever to find somewhere new to explore. Spending time walking outside together is a great way to get groups talking, sharing experiences and memories.
Neil pays tribute to his Clore fellowship in boosting his confidence and providing him with an invaluable network of contacts. The same applies to Lucy, who kept the ship stable as well as looking after their two children while Neil was on his fellowship. When that ended, Lucy joined a Young Foundation accelerator programme, designed to help small charities to expand and grow. She has fond memories of her group, the increase in her confidence, and the new lessons learned.
Neil, who has carried out a review of earlier research findings, notes one of the most encouraging is a trial by a team at Pittsburgh University which showed that walking can increase the size of the hippocampus region of the brain and improve memory. The optimum distance is 9 miles a week. Get your walking boots on.
Meanwhile, in their first four years, the couple have collected an impressive number of awards. They include:
• Social Vision UK 2011 – outright winner by public vote
• NESTA/Observer list of Britain’s New Radicals who will change the face of Britain
• International Dementia Excellence Award 2012 – by expert panel meeting in Sydney, Australia.
• Santander Social Enterprise Development Award 2012