Discovering Happiness in This Lush Highland Park

Bringing back memories through nature in this awesome ‘outdoor playground.’

Beautiful nature.

(iweta0077 /

In the breathtaking natural setting of the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands, local people’s outdoorsy pasts are being reborn. In this haven of ancient forests, a tapestry of wildlife that includes a quarter of the UK’s threatened wildlife species, and lakes, valleys and mountains, an inspiring, outdoor dementia center is taking shape. It is already enabling locals affected with various forms of memory loss, their carers and families, to savor the sounds and scents of nature once again, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Blending the power of nature with togetherness

If you think about it, this project is disruptive in the best possible way. It is shaking up the indoor lifestyles that typically become the reality of so many people with dementia, instead making the great outdoors accessible to them. It also frees them from their social isolation as they mingle with others who also love the outdoors. 

People like a former Cairngorms park ranger, who as grassroots US green organization, Sierra Club reports, knew that getting places on his own was getting harder when he showed up for a swimming class at nine in the evening, instead of the scheduled 9am time.

Speaking to the team at Alzheimer Scotland, creating what is the first outdoor resource center in Britain to support people with dementia, it is clear that nature is the real star of the project. As Jess Bruce, Communications and Campaigns Lead at this charity explained to Goodnet: “This is a UK first. We’re aware of the power of nature and we have been trying to incorporate it into our programs.”

There’s an array of events on offer in this therapeutic program that works to make the natural environment sociable and inclusive. “People and their carers tend to come for specific events like walking, crafting, birdwatching, gardening, and when the weather’s bad, more traditional activities like quizzes and singalongs,” says Bruce. A wooden, cabin-style  building at the Badaguish Outdoor Center, Aviemore, has been refurbished to be “dementia-friendly.”

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, with many just enjoying how reconnecting with and caring for these wild places, uplifts them after their dementia caused them to be cut off from the obvious wellness benefits of being outdoors.

People with dementia out and about in nature.

(Photo courtesy of Alzheimer Scotland)

From little acorns…

As Bruce explains, this outdoor dementia center builds on the success of a smaller pilot program, “The Tipi Project” that got people with dementia and their carers out and about and socializing in the park doing things like woodland walks, wildlife surveys and wood carving. Days that participants themselves summarized using grateful adjectives like “calming” “brilliant” and “magic”. Carers who attended the pilot activities reported that their loved ones became more relaxed and cheerful after the outdoor sessions, Bruce shares.

Or as Gillian Councill, Localities Lead at charity Alzheimer Scotland, explains to Sierra Club, she noticed how in the outdoors, the anxiety and stress associated with dementia dissipated:  “You know that feeling of trying to remember something or trying to achieve something? Nature's got a special way of taking that away."

While the center has been operating for about a year, there are plans for an official launch in spring 2023, and to eventually extend its reach to Scots living further away.  

This initiative can be seen as part of a global trend for “social prescribing,” seeing health workers refer patients to activities like museum visits or nature experiences. In the UK, it is associated with  the country’s “Green Health Prescribing Initiative.” 

The Tipi Project initiative organized by Alzheimer Scotland.

(Photo courtesy of Alzheimer Scotland)

Your center, you name it! 

Visitors to the center are also being invited to help come up with its name: “It’s important for us as a charity to be guided by the voice of lived experience; for participants in the program to feel it belongs to them as much as it is an Alzheimer Scotland initiative,” says Bruce.

She reveals that a name in Gaelic (the founding language of Scotland), still spoken by an estimated 60,000 Scots according to Visit Scotland, may be on the cards. 

Henry Simmons, Chief Executive of Alzheimer Scotland, believes that access to the outdoors can have a transformational effect on people living with dementia and their carers:  “People living with dementia can be at risk of becoming socially isolated,” says Mr Simmons, “and, as a result, they can develop something of an indoor lifestyle – but being outdoors can change everything.”

Or as Gillian Councill of Alzheimer Scotland, explains in the charity’s magazine, Dementia in Scotland, it is unusual to hear about funded initiatives being directed towards the older generation, especially people living with dementia. She feels fortunate to be able to explore the natural environment when she needs to, and wants this luxury to be within reach of people with dementia, so they too can get out into nature as they once loved to do. For her, the support for this initiative offers “the opportunity to reimagine the environment of care and how we perceive dementia.”

The first outdoor resource center for people with memory loss in the UK.

(Photo courtesy of Alzheimer Scotland)