For more than five years, in Reno’s most popular city park, Dementia-Friendly Nature Walks has offered weekly walks for elders living with dementia that blend physical exercise with an expanded appreciation of nature and an opportunity for peer support.
Formerly known as the Idlewild Health Walks, the walks were initially launched as a collaboration between the Sanford Center for Aging (at the University of Nevada, Reno) and the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation. This year, the two organizations sought a new partner – Dementia Friendly Washoe County – in an effort to further strengthen the program and ensure the walks are truly inclusive.
This new partnership also brought a new name to the program, highlighting its commitment to inclusivity: Dementia Friendly Nature Walks.
Each Tuesday morning, about 10 older adults and their care partners participate in the walks, which are led and supported by volunteers from all three organizations and boast a volunteer-to-participant ratio of nearly 1-to-1. The half- to full-mile walks have two different routes: either alongside the Truckee River or past the ponds inside the park.
Besides the walks themselves, trained naturalists from the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation borrow from their study of phenology to discuss the life cycles of plants and animals and how both are influenced by the changing seasons.
“They’re very knowledgeable and point things out to us,” says Pauline Morales, whose doctor suggested the walks after she was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Morales especially enjoys the time spent with others outdoors: “Just being around other people and walking and meeting all the people I walk with.”
“She absolutely loves it,” says her daughter and care partner Lori Burdick. “It’s not something she would do on her own.”
Carter Norris, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Sanford Center for Aging, says the walks provide not only exercise and community but a break from often predictable schedules.
“People get really different things out of the walk,” says Norris, the center’s Volunteer and Community Partnerships Coordinator
The walks started in 2014 when Jennifer Baker from the Sanford Center for Aging discovered Dementia Adventures in the United Kingdom — a program in which people living with dementia can retain a sense of adventure by connecting with the outdoors. She approached the Truckee Meadows Park Foundation with a similar idea, and the walks were born.
Norris says the walks have evolved over time and today emphasize both accessibility and socialization. There are two wheelchairs available for each walk, and walking groups of friends tend to form readily. “We’re trying to encourage conversation,” says Norris.
The walks have proven helpful to everyone involved, including the volunteers, who have learned more about aging and dementia and each have attended the Dementia Friends information session, provided by Dementia Friendly Washoe County.
Without any previous experience in aging, Norris admits she was at first nervous about working with elders living with dementia. Today, the walks are often the high point of her week; spending time in nature with elders. “I love their company so much.”