The concept at Dementia Adventure is simple: Take those living with dementia and their carers into the great outdoors, and offer them an experience that is so markedly different from their usual lives that they forget all the difficulties associated with their condition.
“What we let our customers experience is joy.” It sounds like the cynical creation of an Apple marketing executive peddling their next pseudo-innovation, until you realize quite how real this description is.
Talking to Neil Mapes, co-founder and director of Dementia Adventure, is a piercing insight into the troubles of those living with dementia. It’s also a chance to hear about the innovative outdoor approach that his social enterprise promotes, providing adventure experiences.
Following a stint in clinical psychology, Mapes left frustrated that innovative thinking around mental health wasn’t being properly recognized. While working for Alzheimer’s Concern Ealing in 1999, he set up one of the first Alzheimer’s Cafes in the U.K. His next stop was the tropics – leading walking holidays in the Canary Islands and jungle tours in Guatemala. In 2004, he returned to work in the charity sector, establishing innovative projects before teaming up with adventure travel specialist Lucy Harding to form his own social enterprise – Dementia Adventure.
The reach of dementia is huge. According to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, dementia affects 820,000 people in the U.K.; 25 million members of the U.K. population have a close friend or family member with dementia. As well as the huge personal cost, dementia costs the U.K. economy £23 billion a year, more than cancer and heart disease combined. Half of this £23 billion is met by unpaid carers, who provide full or part-time support for family or close friends living with the disease. These people often have very little support.
Taking up to eight “adventurers” with them on each trip, Dementia Adventure has toured The Isle of Man, sailed the Carrick Roads and navigated 92 nautical miles of the estuary in a Thames sailing barge (with people with dementia helping crew the boat). Supported by Tesco in Chelmsford, they also offer guided walking tours of Essex parkland. Carers who accompanied residents from a local home were amazed at the results. Nature seemed to be triggering unexpected reactions from the residents and their carers.
Our residents had an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie, a sense of belonging. Residents who were usually unresponsive came alive.
Dementia Adventure has now successfully designed and delivered day-long woodland celebration events in Essex, East Sussex, Gloucestershire and Scotland. These mass participation events of up to 89 people have seen people living with dementia, families, paid carers and volunteers sharing lunch, activities and walks out in the woodlands together.
“People are so happy, there are tears of relief. It can get very emotional,” says Mapes, who attends all the days out. Back at the office, he also trains nature organizations on how to adapt for those living with dementia.
“It can boil down to very practical things, such as making sure picnic benches are more wheelchair-friendly,” he adds.
The consultancy also does more wide-reaching work. For example, “Greening Dementia” is a new partnership recently announced with Natural England and the Woodland Trust. The project aims to confirm the health benefits of his scheme and identify the practical barriers to engagement with natural spaces in Britain, with a view to converting more outdoor tourism spaces to fit with his model.
Caring for the carers is an important part of the proposition. Each person living with dementia is accompanied by a close friend or carer on the adventure.
It’s a model that other social enterprises have used with great success, including Blackpool Carers’ Centre. They look after thousands of full- and part-time carers, many of whom are children, providing a range of services to support and enhance the lives of unpaid carers of all ages throughout Blackpool. These include £250 grants that allow the carer to take time off to relax, counselling and specialized support for drug use or those living with dementia.
It can boil down to very practical things, such as making sure picnic benches are more wheelchair-friendly.
The social enterprise has taken supported carers on trips to Liverpool and sightseeing in the Lake District, meals out, cinema, bowling, go-karting and theatre visits. They have also organized university open days and adventure activities such as kayaking canoeing, ghyll scrambling and rock climbing.
While many of their services were previously offered for free, cuts in government spending have put a severe limit on the amount of pro-bono work they do. Smith comes from a private-sector background (in a previous life she was an accountant), and explains: “For me it’s not a choice, we either have to start charging for services or we won’t exist in two years.”
Changes in where funding comes from also means a change in how they approach clients. More control over carer support funds is now being placed with the carers themselves, meaning that they can pick and choose which carer support services to take. The skills needed by Blackpool Carers Centre have adapted accordingly, with staff needing sales and marketing knowledge as well as straightforward pastoral care.
Social enterprise has traditionally fared well in the care sector – but growth was oxygenated by a steady stream of government funding. Now with austerity kicking in, more commercial models are being adopted as care charities transform themselves into the new reality of being a social enterprise.