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Alzheimer’s Zoo Walkers Experience Nature and Community

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Video by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

After chatting a bit at the entrance, the Early Stage Memory Loss walking group decides on a destination. “We’re headed to Northern Trail today,” they declare, but it’s much more about the journey.

The zoo has been partnering with the Washington chapter of Alzheimer’s Association (AA WA) for more than twenty years. As part of the zoo’s Community Access Program, AA WA receives complimentary zoo tickets to provide an opportunity for families and caregivers to enjoy healthy and healing activities with their loved ones who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  We also welcome two Early Stage Memory Loss walking groups to the zoo twice a week.

Year-round on Mondays and Wednesdays the walkers gather for an hour or two as the zoo opens to check out the grounds, soak up some nature and catch up with each other.

A delightfully funny, sharp and welcoming crew, they allowed us to tag along on a few of their walks so we could better share part of their story. We think they are some of the most inspiring guests we have met yet.

Video: Michele Dodge and Kim Easton give us the scoop on what a stroll through the zoo means to the participants of the early morning walks.

Michele and her daughter Kim visit with the zoo walkers each week. Their heartwarming relationship is one of a devoted daughter and her charming, optimistic and absolutely wonderful mom. Kim tells us that her mother, Michele, has always been a huge fan of animals. They always had pets and Michele even used to volunteer at her local animal shelter. Kim says it’s heartwarming to see her mom at Woodland Park Zoo.

“It’s a great way for people to connect, and just have time together” says Kim. “When you have any sort of dementia, sometimes communication becomes very difficult. But when you know you’re talking to someone who’s in the same situation, you don’t worry so much, you don’t have that self-conscious feeling. And I see her opening up more all the time.  And I see other people week after week who tend to come out of their shell a little bit more, it’s such an amazing experience. She just lights up, she is so comfortable here, this is really her turf.”

Michele agrees, “I love coming here with my daughter, isn’t she just beautiful?” We think they are both a beautiful example of the true sense of family and we are so grateful that they choose to spend some of their time together at the zoo.

Zoo walkers head into the South entrance on a sunny autumn day. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

Barry Franklin, one of the AA walk volunteers, confesses that he clocks in almost 100 zoo visits a year! He describes the morning walkers as a close-knit, compassionate network of amazing people who come together to talk about Early Stage Memory Loss and support each other in what can be a scary time. Some have been walking together for years and newcomers are always welcome. Barry explains that while the activities and physical exercise greatly benefit those diagnosed with dementia, the support and sense of community is equally important for their family members and caregivers who might find advice, friendship and comfort in this group.

The walkers meet up before entering the zoo. It’s a quiet time of day since most guests won’t arrive until later, and the walkers sometimes have the entire zoo to themselves. As the group wanders the paths and checks out the animals, they strengthen the friendships that enrich and celebrate their lives, past and present.

Tapir! Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

The walks usually last an hour or so and then the walkers head to the zoo’s Rain Forest Food Pavilion, where they’ll share coffee and chat about upcoming events and other opportunities for remaining connected with this community. It’s that simple: a walk and a cup of joe with good friends, but we think its some of the strongest medicine we have to offer.

When asked why they make the zoo walk a part of their weekly routine, the responses are peppered with words like “relaxing,” “comforting,” “peaceful” and “wonderful.” We at the zoo pride ourselves in delivering moments of up-close animal experiences, conservation action and learning about animals all over the world. Yet we also acknowledge that sometimes a trip to the zoo is simply about being in nature, strolling our 92 acres and enjoying time with friends and family. The zoo walkers remind us that the power of human connection is healing, powerful and builds a sense of community.

Michele, Kim and the rest of the group have a very serious conversation about blue-tailed skinks with educator Greg. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

Meeting a new friend before heading out for a walk. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

We believe that many people in our community would benefit from access to their zoo whatever their means or motivations. The Community Access Program works with over 600 community partners and local organizations to make a free visit to the zoo possible for more than 50,000 people every year, but we can do better.

This summer, King County voters will have the opportunity to significantly boost access to science, arts and heritage educational programming. If passed by vote, Proposition 1 - Access for All will provide funding to Woodland Park Zoo and more than 350 community-based organizations to expand access to learning experiences and remove barriers for underserved communities throughout King County.

We want to extend a huge thank you to the AA walking group for taking the time to speak with us and share their experience. June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month. Alzheimer’s affects nearly 5 million Americans and is the third leading cause of death in Washington state. Special thanks to our Community Access Partner, Washington State Chapter Alzheimer's Association, for their continued service supporting folks in Washington and Northern Idaho. We'd also like to give a shout out to Seattle Parks and Recreation and Greenwood Senior Center, also Community Access Program partners, for sponsoring the early morning walkers as well as offering dementia-friendly opportunities in our community.

Blue skies ahead. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

It's a privilege to be able to offer a safe space for this group to meet and we look forward to seeing their smiling faces for many years to come. If you happen to see them, wave hello and don’t be afraid to join them for a stroll.

If you are interested in joining the early morning walks, you can pre-register with Alzheimer's Association's Early Stage Memory Loss Programs. Please also check out to learn more about events and groups here in Seattle, including the zoo walks, that offer support and creative, social and fitness opportunities for people with memory loss, their families and friends.


Unknown said…
Is this strictly for people in the early stages of memory loss? Are people in later stages welcome at all?
Joyce said…
I am a Zoo Walker. But my group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I joined a month ago in the Education Building at the South Gate. It was easy to join. I have really enjoyed the walks, and the other Walkers are an entertaining group. Thank you, Woodland Park Zoo, for this beneficial program. It is appreciated!