May 09, 2024

Back to nature: Innovative nature-based respite project launches for people with dementia

Green Connect dementia respite
GreenConnect Dementia Respite offers a personal connection to nature to help engage people living with dementia and their carers. [Supplied]

GreenConnect Dementia Respite – a new program in the Loddon-Mallee region that uses the power of nature to help people with dementia – officially launched in Bendigo in April with the aim of providing innovative respite outside of aged care facilities and addressing the urgent need for better support plans for fatigued carers.

Backed by funding of $1.7 million from the Australian Government, the three-year, not-for-profit GreenConnect project was launched at the Atisha Buddhist Centre in Bendigo where a unique garden was unveiled, purpose-designed for people with dementia – thought to be a first in Australia.  Their website provides information and news about the GreenConnect project and allow people to register for upcoming activities and events.

The new ‘Jin Lap’, garden-to-fork garden at the Atisha Centre, where GreenConnect has also started holding calm-inducing, nature-based activities for those with dementia and their carers, is a collaborative effort between GreenConnect, WISE Employment, and the Atisha Centre which aims to bridge the gap between garden and fork, nurturing not just plants but also the lives of those involved.

GreenConnect Project Manager and President of the Heathcote Dementia Alliance, Sandra Slatter, said GreenConnect was tasked to enhance quality of life for people with dementia and their carers in the Loddon-Mallee region through immersion in natural environments, nature-based experiences and short-break accommodation, all within purposely crafted, dementia-inclusive environments.

“We’ve already achieved early success with numerous trips to dementia-inclusive gardens, bush reserves, wineries, outdoor festivals and overnight retreats in the Bendigo and Mildura regions, with the aim of improving quality of life for those with dementia and lessening the impact of support for carers,” she said.

“Being in nature enhances wellbeing and relaxation, rekindles memories, ignites the senses and lessens confusion and agitation. Inspired carers, experiencing the results first-hand, have already started copying our tactics by taking someone with dementia in their care into leafier environments for mutual benefit.”

Ms Slatter said GreenConnect would continue to work on the special garden at the Atisha Centre, thought to be the first garden in Australia purpose-designed for people with dementia. As part of GreenConnect’s new ‘Gardens that Care’ project, the special garden at the Atisha Centre in Bendigo will feature herb, vegetables and fruit  ‘garden-to-fork’ plots that will help create calm and purpose for those with dementia, she said.

“The new garden we have designed at Atisha will see participants plant seeds, nurture plants, harvest vegetables and cook and share the food with others,” Ms Slatter said.   

Another sensory-based ‘Garden of Memories’ would be created in Heathcote, she said, with aromas, colours, textures, sounds and movements to aid healing and meditation spaces to help still the mind.

Ms Slatter said a prime aim of GreenConnect was addressing the “massive and urgent” need for better care for carers themselves.

“Carers get exhausted and have been overlooked and we believe the Government can do more to help them, so GreenConnect is piloting affordable and accessible nature-inspired initiatives that calm those with dementia but also relieve impacts for carers,” Ms Slatter said.

“Another need we have highlighted is the importance of including diverse groups such as First Nations, LGBTQIA+ and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in dementia respite programs so that will be an ongoing focus for us as well.” 

Ms Slatter said La Trobe University researchers would evaluate the social and economic impact of the GreenConnect project and the potential to roll out the innovative model of care across other sectors such as disability, mental health and palliative care.

GreenConnect will run until June, 2026 and is being spearheaded by a consortium of like-minded organisations comprising Princes Court Aged Care in Mildura, Heathcote Health, Heathcote Dementia Alliance, the John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research at La Trobe University, and Rural Care Australia.

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