Active Aging Week – sport, physical activity and living well with dementia

This blog was written by Becky Oatley who is currently undertaking a PhD focusing on dementia and sports reminiscence, memory and nostalgia, in particular engaging with the cultural dimensions of sport as a means of improving the lives of people living with dementia. Over to you Becky:

With the celebration of Active Aging Week upon us, now is an important time to talk about sport, physical activity and living well with dementia. However, in comparison to previous years, Active Aging Week likely looks a little different. Before events of 2020, the thriving University of Worcester Senior Physical Activity & Adapted Sport programme has had over 300 adults aged 60+ attending a wide variety of activities here at the University of Worcester. The unprecedented COVID-19 situation has put all that on hold and the long-term effects could be significant.

Sports and physical activity are an exciting growing area of research for people affected by dementia. We know that physical activity can boost the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of people of all ages. Keeping physically healthy can also be important for cognition (Livingston et al., 2020). Whether it is taking a nature walk, playing football or seated dance, being active can be both enjoyable and a meaningful extension of identity. Taking part in activities centred upon movement can be a key strengths-based activity for people affected by dementia.

And yet, we also know that people with long-term health conditions, such as dementia, are more than twice as likely to be inactive as the general population. People living with dementia are likely to have more physical health problems and find it harder to access support services (Livingston et al., 2020). Barriers to accessing physical activity can include stigma, a lack of understanding from services and inaccessible environments (Alzheimer’s Society, 2019). It is quite likely that the gap has gotten even wider in the circumstances of 2020. A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Society revealed that almost half of people living with dementia have reported the lockdown having a negative impact on their mental health. Furthermore, 82% of people affected by dementia have reported a deterioration in dementia symptomology.

It should not be assumed that sport and physical activity are the elixir to wellbeing; indeed, my own research shows that sport can be a particular cultural location that means very different things to different people. However, keeping active is important for everyone and finding a way to do so, that is meaningful to the individual should be a key part of living well with dementia. In light of the current coronavirus situation, not just the direct impact of lockdown, but also the significant financial consequences for the sport and leisure industry, there is a risk that many physical activity providers might disappear or reduce their services (Community Leisure, 2020). Meanwhile, the longer people are unable to take part in activities, likely the harder it will be physically and psychologically to return.

So now, it seems almost more important than ever to have this conversation. To recognise that keeping active can be a key part of living well with dementia. Active Aging Week is about celebrating aging and the benefits of active living, but we also need to recognise the barriers that might be in place to prevent people taking part in the way that they wish to.

Physical activity is not just about physical health gains in mobility and strength, but it is about social interaction, human connection, enjoyment and occupation. Taking part in activities that boost your mood, that increase your confidence, that help you to maintain your independence and live well with dementia are not a luxury, rather they should be an integral part of a human rights-based approach to care.

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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