It’s All Happening at the Zoo
December 15, 2019
Every Monday the Woodland Park Zoo hosts a dementia zoo walk. This is a free program that aims to meet areas of wellbeing within the lives of adults living with dementia. Embedded in this program is exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. I love that the exercise is gentle walking. I’ve been told by a past therapist that walking is particularly meditative because it activates bilateral stimulation between the two hemispheres of your brain and allows for natural thought processing to occur. I’m not entirely sure of the effects that dementia can have on bilateral stimulation, but I am very interested in looking more into that relationship.
The Zoo Walk is free for participants to join and weekly attendance varies anywhere from 14 to 24 people, plus volunteers. The program lasts for about two hours, with approximately 45 minutes or an hour of walking through different zoo exhibits. The Zoo Walk always finishes up in the zoo’s cafe. Tables are pushed together to make one big, welcoming space and everyone is able to socialize for an hour over cookies and steaming drinks. I’ve had some wonderful interactions during this time. I learned a lot about the life story of a woman named Jamie who wears a fabulous, puffy, fuscia jacket. I was able to talk to another woman about all of the birds that she enjoys watching in her backyard. This moment of sitting and connecting is special – it radiates with authenticity.
While the Zoo Walks are absolutely for the benefit of adults living with dementia, it is also largely for their care partners. When I attend the walks I hold similar responsibilities to the volunteers. Volunteers aim to interact and engage with everyone, but specifically with the adults living with dementia. By walking with them and spending time with them, it gives their care partner a moment to step back and socialize with other care partners or simply have a moment to clear their mind.
The more interaction I have with programs for adults living with dementia, the more I am learning how much these programs are able to relieve care partners. With here:now for example, care partners aren’t worried about setting up or cleaning afterwards. Care partners don’t need to be concerned about being the good guy or the bad guy, having to make big decisions, or getting from one place to another. They are able to simply sit next to their loved one and look at art for an afternoon, enjoying the moment together. The Zoo Walk provides a similar comfort by sharing a morning together looking at beautiful animals.
An interaction that really impacted me at the Zoo Walk this week was with a woman named Libby. I was standing next to her at one of the exhibits and I told her that she had the most beautiful smile. She began absolutely beaming and she told me that she loved me! For the rest of the walk we meandered next to one another, holding hands with her husband on one side and linking arms with me or holding onto the strap of my backpack on the other side. She told me all about her kids and the animals she liked, we talked about the plants that we were walking next to and how good it felt to take a big deep breath. She was one of the adults on the walk living with more advanced memory loss. Much of her communication was discombobulated or slightly nonsensical, but even so we had really joyful and meaningful conversation. A wonderful microcosm of a friendship.
One of my favorite parts of the Zoo Walk is that it is inherently intergenerational. Kids are regularly seen wandering about the zoo and they naturally cross paths with the adults on the Zoo Walk. It’s interesting to observe this and compare it to the Intergenerational Pilot Program that I was part of at the Frye. With the Pilot Program, one of the main goals was to encourage interaction between children and adults. However, this interaction was attempting to be fostered within a curated environment. With the Zoo Walk, interaction happens organically because the kids are there of their own accord, as are the adults. People of all ages are wandering around the zoo, which makes it really easy for eye contact and a smile to take place. On these Zoo Walks I have seen so many adults living with dementia absolutely light up at the sight of a little kid trundling past them to go stand on their tip toes and look at the animals on the other side of a fence.
Speaking of little kids, I changed it up a little bit this week from my usual programming with adults living with dementia and I was able to assist the Frye’s education department in a local preschool visiting the museum! Let me just tell you, preschoolers are darling in and of themselves, but seeing such tiny humans in vast museum exhibits is kind of the cutest thing ever. I have had a past internship at a child development center with kids aged 0-5 and am now employed as a substitute teacher at the same center, so I felt very at home with this age group. The theme of the visit at the museum was costumes. We looked at an array of pieces which demonstrated different aspects clothing and the people inside of the clothes. I was impressed by the attention level of the preschoolers, going into the program I definitely had my concerns regarding how well they would be able to grasp what they were going to be shown. But much to my surprise the kids seemed to understand the space they were in and how to engage with pieces of art.
After spending time in the galleries, everyone went upstairs to grab a snack and begin the next portion of the preschool visit. Kids were given an art making project with the instruction of creating their own costume or clothing. All hands were busy gluing down fabric and buttons – everyone was quite immersed in their creations.
Working with this group was a really fun way to spend the morning and a nice break from my usual adult demographic. Seeing kids in an art museum is exciting. I think having exposure to an artistic setting at such a young age is a privilege that many people take for granted.
I’m gradually beginning to realize that my time in Seattle is starting to get shorter and shorter. I’m on the other side of the hill now. There is still so much that I want to squeeze in before I leave, so I’m trying to check off the priority to-dos as much as I can. This week after having been at the Zoo on Monday I decided that I needed to make it over to the aquarium downtown. Oh my gosh I’m so glad I did, it was such a fabulous visit. I spent a really long time watching the seals and the otters. And there was a gigantic octopus that was pretty awesome. Plus, they had a touch tank and I got to feel a star fish and a little sea urchin! I was really happy to see that the aquarium works hard to advocate for environmental responsibility and natural habitat protection.
All in all, it was a busy and fulfilling week over here in the Pacific Northwest. Now that Thanksgiving is over Christmas music has been popping all over the place. This is my first time hearing classic Christmas songs without seeing snow. I miss the snow, but I’m enjoying not having to deal with it.
To learn more about the Dementia Zoo Walks, click here: http://www.momentiaseattle.org/new-page-2
Olivia is a psychology major and art history minor from Houghton, Michigan.