September 20, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Serene Goh
(Photo above) Mr Ding Kian Seng’s quiet confidence instantly sets Madam Norah at ease. Madam Norah, 74, was bound to her wheelchair after a stroke in October 2019 affected her speech, mobility and memory. When Mr Ding took over the work of pushing her chair, it offered respite for her youngest daughter and primary caregiver, Ms Nadia Daeng.
Outdoors enthusiast and adventure educator Mr Ding Kian Seng, 37, has a lifeguard’s still, quiet demeanour that inspires trust.
So when he met Madam Norah, 74, at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, he swiftly set her at ease, taking over the job of pushing her wheelchair from her two family members.
The sight of an elderly woman escorted by a man carrying a full mountaineering backpack doesn’t quite look like a bath.
Yet the mission of Mr Ding’s Nature Reconnections, was just that: Forest bathing. He invites participants to open their senses to their natural surroundings, its sights, sounds and smells. It’s a decades-old Japanese practice called “shinrin-yoku” — forest bathing — intended to reduce stress and promote a sense of physical wellbeing.
(Above) Mr Ding Kian Seng, 37, takes Madam Norah around Swan Lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, as part of a forest bathing programme, Nature Reconnections. He designed the programme for caregivers and their families, to help evoke a sense of wellbeing just by enjoying nature.
Unlike a guided tour to identify plants, he notes: “In forest bathing, we don’t have that show and tell. We leave it very open. It’s more about allowing the senses to be fully engaged and immersed. Not much talking.”
Joining the pair were Madam Norah’s youngest daughter and primary caregiver Ms Nadia Daeng, Ms Daeng’s partner Mr Wayne Rée, as well as this pair of WhatAreYouDoing.sg storytellers.
Sights, Scents and Sounds Brought Back Memories
Mr Ding led the group on a leisurely loop past Swan Lake up to Sun Garden, before ending the day in Sundial Garden. He paused at four key points, prompting participants to open their senses to the surrounding flora, then take turns sharing their responses with the group.
Just 20 minutes in, at the Swan Lake Gazebo, the effect of simply sitting still to listen and observe deeply moved Madam Norah. She reminisced about younger days — she used to live in a kampung in Geylang, how she hadn’t been to Botanic Gardens in many years, and how grateful she was.
Over two and a half hours, it emerged that the elder had suffered an ischemic stroke in October last year — three blood clots that affected her speech, mobility and memory.
It bound the Eurasian mother of four to a wheelchair, and stripped her of the independence she always had been accustomed to. Ms Daeng moved in with her, and during the Circuit Breaker, had to manage her mother’s disorientation at why her other children couldn’t visit.
(Above) A feathered resident of the Botanic Gardens cautiously approaches. Madam Norah, who grew up in a Geylang kampung, reminisces about that time.
“For her it was very frustrating, because she was used to doing things herself. She hates being a burden to somebody else,” Ms Daeng said, adding that she’d found out about the outing through the Caregivers Alliance. Because Madam Norah had been so excited during a previous outing to Gardens by the Bay, she signed her up.
Also emerging — from Mr Ding’s Hermione Granger-esque backpack — were just about everything to ensure Madam Norah’s maximum comfort.
“She’s so happy! She said people need to appreciate nature more; it’s so beautiful.”
Ms Nadia Daeng, 37, freelance public relations professional, on her mother Madam Norah’s experience
First out were insect repellant and itch-relief spray. Later, he pulled from it water, a flute he’d sound to politely recall folks, scent bags to hold fallen petals and leaves, a fold-out camping table with chairs and stools, utensils, as well as a full tea-service including hot tea, as well as cakes that were low in sugar and easy to digest.
After the last walk around the Frangipani Collection, Mr Ding pulled out the stops for an afternoon tea, inviting reflections of the session.
“She’s so happy,” Ms Daeng said of her mum. “She said people need to appreciate nature more; it’s so beautiful.”
The Power of Forest Therapy to Aid Mental Wellness
Mr Ding’s love for the great outdoors began while he was a teenage Scout. He continues to volunteer with the organisation till this day, among other environmentally conscious groups.
(Above) Madam Norah is moved to tears as Mr Ding asks her to focus on the sights, smells and sounds of the gardens, encouraging mindfulness and heightened awareness of her natural surroundings. “Everyone should come here; it’s so beautiful,” she said.
Today, he is a professional kayaking and dragon boating coach, and co-founder of watersports company, SplashAxis Paddlesports.
Between his bachelor’s degree in tourism management, and training in special needs education, he realised that sports and being outdoors promoted mental wellness. That trajectory led him to become a health coach, then a Leave No Trace Master Educator from the Leave No Trace (centre for outdoor ethics) in the United States.
Seeking ways to help others engage on a deeper level with nature instead of just taking it for granted, he became a certified Forest Therapy Guide from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in the US, completing his training in Slovenia over a year ago.
“Forest therapy can be done anywhere there’s nature or some aspect of greenery, in any natural ecosystem. The guide is trained to craft invitations to help participants slow down and open the senses in connecting with nature.”
Mr Ding Kian Seng, Forest Therapy guide and co-founder of SplashAxis Paddlesports
“Forest therapy can be done anywhere there’s nature or some aspect of greenery, in any natural ecosystem,” he said after the session. “The guide is trained to craft invitations to help participants slow down and open the senses in connecting with nature.
The Forest Therapy guide’s main role is to facilitate the experience. The guide opens the doors, the forest is the therapist. In this project, helping to push the wheelchair is a form of support in a personal capacity.”
Reconnecting with Our Natural Environment
While Madam Norah was the main guest of the experience, the session provided some respite for her daughter Ms Daeng as well. The simple act of Mr Ding helping to push the wheelchair gave Ms Daeng and her partner a little time together at the gardens.
During the Circuit Breaker, Ms Daeng cared for her mother full-time.
The friendly public relations professional revealed that day: “I haven’t been able to work. But it feels like a full-time job you don’t get paid for — and it’s 24/7,” she said. “I take it one day at a time.”
(Above) Ms Nadia Daeng, 37, embraces her mother Madam Norah, 74, after a gentle swing, with her partner Mr Wayne Rée, 38, providing support. “I want to come back,” said Madam Norah. “I’m very happy. Got people think of me like this!”
In fact, it was Mr Ding’s intention to help caregivers and families like Ms Daeng’s. He approached Caregivers Alliance and Handicaps Welfare Association to invite their members first, with members of the public signing up for some sessions.
“From news reports, a lot of people are facing depression and stress. Being trained in forest therapy, I thought it would be an opportunity to reconnect people with nature — remember the land, and that the environment needs support in terms of conservation,” he said.
Mr Ding received support from Temasek Trust’s oscar@sg fund to cover wheelchair-accessible transportation and programme materials (with no personal claims for himself). When the programme was launched, spots quickly filled up.
For Madam Norah, who has been mostly indoors since her stroke, long before the Circuit Breaker, the afternoon out was enough to make her smile, tear up, and express a deep gratitude, in no small part to Mr Ding.
“I want to come back,” she said. “I’m very happy. Got people think of me like this!”
Nature Reconnections — a community initiative to reconnect individuals who are wheelchair users and rely on personal mobility aids — presented 15 sessions from August to October 2020 that have since been fully booked. For those interested in customised group sessions, please contact Mr Ding Kian Seng at firstname.lastname@example.org