Dallas Zoo Helps People With Dementia Connect With Nature | KERA News

Dallas Zoo Helps People With Dementia Connect With Nature

Mar 29, 2019

On a sunny spring day, families gathered outside the lion enclosure at the Dallas Zoo, where trainers took the big cats through some exercises and rewarded them with meatballs. Sara Salinas came out to see the lions with her uncle Simon, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 11 years ago. 

Salinas says coming to the zoo has been a bonding experience for the family.

"We've got to pet a lot of animals that we wouldn't normally get to pet, like a flamingo," Salinas says. "Last time we pet a flamingo and had a wonderful time."

Tonya McDaniel with the Dallas Zoo shows visitors a lion skull during Monday's Wild Gatherings event.
Credit Syeda Hasan / KERA News

Salinas and her uncle were one of about a dozen people who attended the zoo's Wild Gatherings event on Monday. It was their fourth time attending. Visitors get an up-close look at the wildlife and take part in activities are specifically designed for people with early-stage dementia.

The Wild Gatherings program is free, and the Dallas Zoo can accommodate about 25 people per visit. The next event is set for April 22.

Salinas says her uncle Simon enjoys many of the same activities he did before his diagnosis, and the program has connected them with other families who share their experience.

"It just changes your whole life, and the family around you, and your friends," she said. "So to come together and have this wonderful event, where everybody is accepted and welcoming and understanding, is just a wonderful thing."

There are different types of dementia. The most common form seen in older adults is Alzheimer's disease. The condition causes people to lose cognitive function.

People with dementia may have trouble with their short-term memory, have a harder time communicating or be less sharp in their reasoning and judgement.

Tonya McDaniel with the Dallas Zoo says connecting with wildlife can be a powerful experience. Studies have shown that physical activity may help slow cognitive decline, and taking in new information can increase brain activity.

"To come together and have this wonderful event, where everybody is accepted and welcoming and understanding, is just a wonderful thing."

"This is an opportunity to help them get out of their regular routine and getting them back out into nature, and hopefully sparking some memories of when they were younger and playing in nature," McDaniel said. 

Dallas resident Tech Guerrero came to Wild Gatherings with his mother, Maria Luisa Pastel. She moved in with Guerrero and his husband after being diagnosed with a form of dementia about five years ago.

"She's a retired banking manager for international banking in Mexico City, so she used to be very social and very verbally engaged," Guerrero said. "And we're here because we're hoping that she will oil those motors of social engagement."

Guerrero keeps a monthly activity calendar for his mom, trying to keep her busy and engaged. He says being a caregiver is a challenge and a gift. It's taught Guerrero to renegotiate certain aspects of his relationship with his mother.

"You used to be the son or the daughter of, and suddenly you turn into the mom or dad of that person," he said. "There's a series of daily scenarios where you have to take the role that you were formerly raised with."