Plans underway for Calgary’s first dementia-inclusive park

Dementia Network Calgary is looking for feedback on an idea for a unique park in the city

By Leanne Murray | June 6, 2022 |5:00 am

Calgarians are being asked for their thoughts on a potential dementia-inclusive park, which would be the first of its kind in the city.

Photo: Submitted

More than half a million Canadians live with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

Based on its most recent stats, Dementia Network Calgary estimates 17,000 people in the city are living with a diagnosis.

“And for each of those, about 10 people are impacted. So caregivers, family members, friends,” says Kim Brundrit with Dementia Network Calgary, explaining the ripple effect a dementia diagnosis can have.

Brundrit says there is still a negative stigma in the public when it comes to dementia. That is one of the reasons the organization is looking into a dementia-inclusive park for Calgary.

Stigma and isolation

Often, people isolate themselves and their loved one because they fear that stigma in the community, Brundrit explains.

“So if we can create more safe spaces for people with a diagnosis, then we can hopefully reduce that isolation a little bit,” she adds. 

Brundrit says they currently offer ‘Conversation Cafes’, which have been popular with community members.

“People with a diagnosis and their partner, friend, or family member can come out for a coffee in the afternoon and it’s a dementia-inclusive environment,” she says, adding it’s a welcoming and safe space for a social outing.

Creating a safe space

That’s where the idea comes in for a dementia-inclusive park — something not specifically offered in Calgary currently but a concept that Brundrit says has been successful in other parts of the world.

Dementia Network Calgary has partnered with Parks Foundation Calgary to try to bring the idea to fruition.

Since 1985, Parks Foundation has been working with local communities and donors to bring more diverse outdoor spaces to the city.

CEO Sheila Taylor says they are looking to make spaces in Calgary that are more inclusive than they may have been in the past.

“Not everyone feels welcome or that spaces are for them,” she says. “The more that we can build spaces that are inclusive for everybody, the more benefits we can see.”

Taylor adds there are proven health benefits around being physically active and that more research is emerging about mental health and wellness benefits that come with exposure to green spaces.

“There’s more and more research coming out that is showing these huge links around being outdoors and health benefits and we’re really trying to explore that and explore the different ways that parks can help people.”

Researching the benefits

Dr. Dallas Seitz is a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Calgary and a health services researcher focused on dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It wasn’t long after he moved to Calgary in the fall of 2019 that he began discussions with the Alzheimer’s Society of Calgary.

“From those discussions, we started to look into the research related to outdoor activities for people with dementia, and then we received a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to do a research project,” Seitz says.

That research project recently got underway and Seitz says over the next three years they will be looking into the specific benefits and impacts of people with dementia and their caregivers spending time outdoors.

“What are some of the unique considerations that we have to think about for outdoor activities for people who have memory problems, which may be a little different than people who aren’t affected by that.”

Studying real-life scenarios

Seitz says part of the research will involve people with dementia and their caregivers spending time in parks this summer and then measuring things like memory, attention, and stress to try to understand how outdoor activities might help with symptoms of dementia or quality of life.

“Once we kind of test our program out, then we’re going to be doing a larger, controlled study looking at the effects of park visits on moods, thinking, and behaviours.”

Examples of programs from the UK and Australia that focus on dementia-friendly outdoor spaces and activities will also be studied, Seitz adds.

“There are lots of different kinds of ideas percolating about our outdoor spaces and activities, and how do we make them more inclusive, or welcoming for people with dementia and also break down some of the stigma associated with dementia.”

Possible features of a dementia-inclusive park

Dr. Seitz will be speaking at Dementia Network Calgary’s ‘Parks Perks’ event on Tuesday evening at Triwood Community Association to educate attendees on the potential benefits of a dementia-inclusive park.

Brundrit hopes community members will come out to the event and provide feedback on the kinds of things they would like to see included.

“We’ve heard from some people already [and] they want to see some intergenerational elements. So it’s a place you can go to with your grandkids, maybe some interactive art pieces, sensory elements,” she says.

There could also be opportunities to host things like walking groups, paint demonstrations, and poetry readings at the park, Brundrit adds.

Plans are in the very early stages at this point, but Brundrit says an advisory group will work with the Parks Foundation on the next steps.

From idea to reality

Taylor says those next steps will depend on feedback from the community, demand for the park, and discussions with experts.

“With any project, we would look to bring partners together, passionate people to take hold of an idea,” she says.

“Then we would start looking at potential locations and approaches to the design, and fundraising.”

Parks should be for everyone, says Taylor, adding this is a unique opportunity to create a space for people diagnosed with dementia and their caregivers.

“We want parks to be designed in a way that everyone feels welcome and they can enjoy these spaces.”

Click here to register for the ‘Parks Perks’ event and to learn more about Dr. Seitz’s research, email parks4dementia@ucalgary.ca.

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Leanne Murray

Leanne is a Calgary Citizen reporter.

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