After three years and many great successes The Mersey Forest’s Nature4Health project has come to an end.
Funding from Big Lottery’s Reaching Communities Fund has meant that we were able to work with a really diverse range of partner organisations to improve the wellbeing of nearly 2,000 people across Merseyside and North Cheshire through using contact with nature, their local communities and green spaces.
An impact report will soon be published, detailing research and analysis of Nature4Health carried out by our researchers, together with colleagues at Liverpool John Moore’s University and the University of Liverpool. We all know that contact with nature is probably a good thing, but this research will highlight exactly why that’s the case. In the meantime, watch these films about some of our key projects with ‘The Reader’ and ‘Change, Live Grow St Helen’s’ , which show the human impact of our work with communities.
Nature4Health, Reading with Nature, Calderstones Park, Liverpool
‘I love reading, I always have’, says Raymond, an 83 year-old living Simonsfield Care Home in Liverpool. Raymond, like many other people attending ‘Reading with Nature’ has dementia. He finds many day-to -day tasks challenging and frustrating because of his illness. Nonetheless, he stands before a small group and performs a moving recital of a poem called ‘The Seashell’ with the accuracy, pace and timing of a professional actor. ‘It just came to me easily, and I knew what it meant, I was quite happy with it. In fact, I loved it!’
The group, comprised of residents and staff from nearby care homes, as well as a number of dedicated volunteers is called ‘Reading for Nature’, a poetry group for people with dementia run by The Mersey Forest as part of their Nature 4 Health programme in partnership with The Reader.
The Reader is a national organisation which uses the concept of Shared Readingto change lives, reduce social isolation and build stronger communities. Working with the Mersey Forest on ‘Reading for Nature’ creates an obvious opportunity for the two agencies to collaborate on their shared objective of improving peoples’ well-being.
Discussing their surroundings with Katie from The Reader
Stephen Ward from the Mersey Forest said, ‘This is part of our 3 year, Big-Lottery Funded Nature4Health programme. We’re looking to get communities across the spectrum more active and gaining the passive benefits of being in the outdoors and in contact with nature as a way of improving their well-being’.
Katie Clark from the Reader explained that the park itself was an ideal setting for sharing poems about nature which then prompts discussion amongst the group. As communication can be a challenge for people living with dementia the words, thoughts and images created by the poems and the natural surroundings can prompt memories, emotions and sometimes, as in Raymond’s case, simply a connection in the resonance of the poetic language itself.
Diane 82, who has Parkinsons, found herself a little shy at the start of the group but grew in confidence through the session; ‘There are some situations where you wouldn’t normally open your mouth’, she says, ‘but I feel comfortable here. I try and make sense of the words. It’s certainly food for thought and I’m looking forward to coming again’.
Volunteer Joan with Daphne
Volunteer Catherine Sinclair from Liverpool used to bring her mother Margaret to the group. ‘My mother used to read quite a lot but her memory was affected and so to see her read out poems that she knew from school age gave me and her an enormous amount of pleasure. And I think it’s so important for people to still be able to enjoy things when they are suffering from this progressive, insidious disease. Some people may not be able to articulate but they do engage in conversations and if a person’s speech is affected you can often see their eyes light up.’
Care home staff fill out their evaluation forms –feedback is crucial to the success of the project
Rachel Duffy, who has been a volunteer with The Reader since 2014, says as she gains a lot from the feeling of connection with other people. ‘Not everyone is what you might have thought of as a ‘poetry person’, and maybe they don’t say much about the poem but they enjoy reading them together. Even people who don’t express any thoughts or feelings seem to like the peace and satisfaction of reading together. Even if their communication is little disjointed and they suddenly say ‘Did you come in the car?’ or ‘how old are you?’. You’re just creating a little bond with them or putting something a bit different into their minds, or perhaps giving them the words for something they are no longer able to express themselves’.
It was clear that this was a refreshing and enlightening experience for so many of the participants today. A real privilege to be part of.
Nature4Health with Change, Grow, Live (CGL) St Helen’s.
Yet another glorious summer day as Hannah Petrie visits a group that forms part of the Nature4Health success story thanks to Big Lottery funding.
‘Today I’m at Ashton’s Green Community Allotments in Parr, St Helen’s. Here, as part of our Nature4Health programme, the Mersey Forest is working in partnership with Change, Grow, Live (CGL) St Helen’s on a course all about planting, growing and making organic produce.
The people attending the group have a range of social needs including social anxiety and depression. Many are in recovery from substance misuse.
Some people are new to the group today, others are regulars and many are returning to support new people in peer-to-peer sessions. There’s a friendly welcome for everyone in the classroom.
Soon after bacon butties and numerous cups of tea have been consumed Alec begins his regular task of breaking up pallets for the upcycling scheme CGL runs as a social enterprise. “I find it really satisfying!”, he says, as he gets to work on with his hammer and crowbar, carefully breaking the wood apart.
The pallets are recycled into garden furniture designed by the group with many pieces having already been sold to local businesses, supporting another of the group’s aim of increased community interaction.
The atmosphere is relaxed and supportive as volunteer co-ordinator Mandy chats away to volunteers working in the kitchen with her, whilst project worker Shirley introduces me with visible pride to Linda and urges me to hear her story.
Linda is in recovery from a dependency on alcohol. She tells me: “I have a lot of alcoholics who have died in my family. I’ve lost a lot of people. I became dependent on alcohol because of my mental health, I had problems with anxiety and depression. So, one day I just thought ‘enough’s enough’. I had a key worker and went to numerous groups, tried counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I did go back to drinking after a while, but then I went back to trying the group sessions and eventually I heard about the allotments.
I loved the thought of being in the outdoors because I used to want to be a gardener… I gradually built up to having more contacts with others. I found it really hard to talk about my story because I was scared of being judged. I would only talk to people if I absolutely had to I didn’t trust anybody and my confidence and self-esteem were at rock bottom. So, I started coming here every week. I just kept pushing myself and gradually started opening up to people. I’ve been coming for about a year now and I’ve gone from being really within myself to talking to everybody, seeing how they are (rather than just talking about me!) so I can see how I can help them.”
Linda (or Lin as everyone here knows her here), is now studying Health and Social Care as well as an IT course. She admits it can be hard for the people running the courses as: “Us addicts are not very reliable!” she laughs. “We can be a bit chaotic and so trying to get someone to turn up to a group every single week is very hard as there is always something else going on in their lives.
I’ve found coming to the allotment gives routine and structure to my life where I previously had none. I would just sit there with the curtains closed not wanting to speak to anybody, just drinking. That was my life.”
A deeply inspiring story and not the one I was expecting to hear when Linda began to talk to me. This project is changing peoples’ lives as we speak. It’s a testament to the power of horticultural therapy as a key aspect of Nature4Health, as well as to the bravery and determination of participants like Linda’.
Our Mindful Contact with Nature sessions are proving very popular and there’s been some great feedback. Not only from participants but also from those closest to them. We’ve loved hearing the stories and here’s one of our favourites:
“The lady I spoke to told me her husband thought she was less agitated. When they were out walking together she didn’t feel the need to chatter constantly, and they both learned to enjoy the moment, and have ten minutes of mindful concentration on their surroundings. And she was sleeping better. She still wakes in the night but stays calm and goes back to sleep. I know her and she did seem much calmer” (Louise)
From those who took part, they also had some great feedback:
“My experience during the course was really positive. It helped me deal with a difficult relationship breakdown” (Sara)
“Everyone who suffers from anxiety associated problems should attend ongoing mindfulness programmes” (Rosemary)
“By week 5 everything was beginning to seem greener and finding bluebells in the most unexpected places was uplifting. I was re-discovering my affinity with nature” (Deidre)
If you want to take part then the current sessions are running at Neston on Thursday afternoons or email Suzanne.Londra@merseyforest.org.uk to find out more.
From January 2018 our full range of evidence based products will be on offer across Cheshire West and Chester. The team have been working hard to select the most beautiful woodlands and green spaces on offer across the authority, enabling participants to experience the wide ranging health and wellbeing benefits of being active in nature.
The programme will commence from January 9th 2018, with activities taking place in Winsford, Ellesmere Port, Northwich, Frodsham, Neston and Chester. The service welcomes individuals of all ages, ability and experience. It is also completely free of charge, so what are you waiting for?