Watch the birdie – if you want to boost health and wellbeing

It may not feel like it but spring is just around the corner. It is now time to think about how you can capitalise on the health and wellbeing benefits nature can bring for people living with dementia, and the people who care for them.

According to a study by Natural England, Dementia Adventure, the Mental Health Foundation and Innovations in Dementia, wildlife and bird watching is one of the most popular activities for people living with dementia – and 25 per cent of the people interviewed said they took part several times a week or every day.

Seeing our feathered friends, even from a conservatory, has a positive effect on wellbeing and mental health according to a fascinating piece of research carried out in 2017 by the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland, Australia.

The researchers found that being able to see birds can lower the risk of anxiety, stress and depression, all of which can affect people living with dementia.

Interestingly, the data showed that there was a link between the number of birds spotted in the afternoon and increased happiness. This may be an excellent excuse to spend time making fat balls with your loved one and planning a garden with plants and feeders that attract more birds to the garden.

And the good news is that being able to hear birdsong and bird calls can boost the effect. A University of Surrey study from 2013 found birdsong is the type of natural sound most commonly associated with perceived stress recovery and attention restoration that support those living with dementia.

Bird watching has other advantages too. Lifting binoculars helps keep arm muscles toned. Finding and tracking birds with binoculars challenges eye-hand coordination, while looking up birds and identifying them can be a challenge to the brain: just try telling a tree sparrow from a house sparrow.

One of the best and most rewarding ways to watch birds is in the open air. A study produced by the Wildlife Trusts and the University of Essex found a number of benefits to being out amid nature, including improvements to physical health through increased activity, improvements in wellbeing such as reductions in stress and anxiety, and increased positive mood, self-esteem and resilience. By taking part in group activities such as organised walks there were also improvements in social functioning and in social inclusion.

According to the Natural England study, the top barriers to taking part in outdoor activities and having contact with nature were a lack of confidence and safety concerns, as well as having no transport, or a lack of information about the suitability of places for visitors with dementia.

How to make the most of nature

  • Work with your loved one and even younger members of the family on making fat balls that will attract birds to your garden. You can find details on how to make them here.
  • Buy or borrow a book on bird watching so you can have fun identifying birds. If you are stumped, try the RSPB bird identifier which you can access here.
  • Plan outings with older relatives in advance so you and they will be happy and confident that they will have what they need. You can find Care UK’s ‘Good to Go’ guide here.
  • Consider a trip to your local garden centre to look at the plants that attract bugs or produce seeds to encourage birds to your garden. Many centres have helpful advice teams and also have sections containing bird food, feeders and boxes, as well as bug hotels to keep your garden teeming with the insects that attract birds and even hedgehogs.