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Dementia-Friendly Gardens: How Gardens Can Provide Wellbeing for Those With Dementia

The therapeutic power of nature is well-known, and gardens can be a place of sensory delight for those living with dementia. We look at the growing trend for dementia-friendly gardens in horticultural design, and how you can create a flower-filled sanctuary at home that the whole family can enjoy.

The stocks are nodding in a soft breeze, their delicate scent carrying over the lawn. The wildflower patch is full of bees buzzing softly as they go about their business, while in the corner the vegetables, the tufts of carrot tops and beetroot that Helen and her live-in carer Julia, planted earlier in the year, are beginning to appear.

There is no greater sense of peace than to sit, or work, in a garden at any time of year, but especially in the sunshine. And for Helen, who has mid-stage dementia, and others living with the condition, the sounds, sights and smells of nature take on an even greater resonance.

The ‘biophilia’ hypothesis, was first described in 1984 by biologist E O Wilson, who posited an innate affinity and need to seek a connection between human beings and the natural world.

At the same time, and in the same year, the ground-breaking study by US psychologist Roger Ulrich – ‘View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery’ claimed that views of nature could help people recover more quickly from medical interventions, with fewer complications and less pain medication.

"Gardens bring people together and empower everyone to feel good about themselves, in a natural and gentle way"

Nature, it seemed, was on everyone’s mind as a therapeutic tool in the 1980s, but the uplifting power of gardens was never in doubt – and has been explored and expanded on ever since.

Along with general benefits of exercise, fresh air and stress relief, gardens have been highlighted as specifically improving the health of people with dementia in a number of ways.

These include stimulating the appetite and increasing vitamin D levels through sunlight, improving mood, offering a quiet, consistent and safe space and providing an activity to share with family and carers.

A garden also offers a unique opportunity to enjoy a sensory theatre - with fragrant, coloured plants and shrubs offering visual and olfactory stimulation.

Aside from the grounding physical nature of the benefits, garden therapy can also offer less tangible, but equally important, boosts to those with dementia.

The Journal of Dementia Care (Cobley, 2003), notes that it can “reinforce a sense of self” and provide “intimacy through group activities”, stating that “caring for plants alleviates feelings of helplessness and dependency on others”.

In simple terms, gardens can bring people together and empower everyone to feel good about themselves in a natural and gentle way.

For those with dementia, gardens can provide a powerful avenue for reminiscence. When recent memory is challenged, it can be older memories and feelings that remain intact.

Helen, a keen gardener all her life, can recognise many plants but struggles sometimes to remember who she is talking to.

The sights and smells can also prompt happy reminiscence of the past. At this year’s RHS Flower Show in Tatton Park, the ‘Remember Me’ garden, by Cheshire-based designers Jane Bingham and Penny Hearn, was designed to provoke memories.

It did this in part by incorporating plants that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s – such as buddleia, hydrangeas, dahlia, dianthus, delphinium and nasturtium - into its design. The garden was also set out in a hexagonal shape to emphasise the feeling of enclosure and security.

Bingham states:

“Many people being diagnosed now with dementia will have been young, with young families, during the 60s and 70s and will have had their own garden.

“Fragrance can transport someone back in time instantly to a moment. For example, if I smell the scent of buddleia, I am straight away taken back to my childhood home in the 1970s when buddleias were covered in butterflies: red admirals, tortoiseshells and peacocks.”

The appearance of dementia-friendly gardens at flower shows has been increasing over the years. In 2008, landscape gardener Cleve West’s garden at Chelsea, designed for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, even won a Gold Medal.

A key aspect of the garden was creating the feeling of a sanctuary, while also being stimulating. The garden had a wide path with a smooth surface and figure-of-eight layout to reduce confusion of those navigating it.

Designing gardens that can be enjoyed fully by those with dementia are such a hot horticultural topic these days, that the new Royal Horticultural Society course which was launched in 2017, ‘Designing Gardens for Dementia’, sold out immediately.

These glorious show gardens provide pointers and inspiration as to how our green spaces can function, not only as beautiful places of serenity and positivity, but as dementia-friendly places by design – with landscaping and planting to enhance their natural qualities.

The key factors that all of them share are that they are easy to use and understand, free from ambiguity and provide opportunities for meaningful activity within them.

At home, gardens can incorporate these features and include creative planting to amplify the sensory aspects. Beds of fragrant plants such as lavender, known for its soothing qualities, lemon sage, mint, lemon balm, jasmine or heritage roses are easy ways to bring scent to the air and stimulate the senses.

Planting can also encourage animals and bees — and baths and feeders can encourage birds into the garden to provide a continual source of interest. The RSPB has details of how to do this.

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience"

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

For Helen, gardening gives her peace of mind in a place where she feels and has always felt safe and secure.

If you or your loved-one don’t have a garden though, there are many groups throughout the UK that run gardening clubs, adding sociability to the list of benefits.

Thrive, the UK’s leading charity for social and therapeutic horticulture, uses gardening to help to reduce anxiety in people living with dementia and runs gardening programmes in Berkshire, London, Birmingham and Gateshead.

Research done by the charity has also recently helped it to pilot a new programme of horticultural therapy activities for early onset dementia - people who were diagnosed before the age of 65.

The Alzheimer’s Society also arranges gardening clubs around the UK, where groups of 10-15 members grow plants in raised beds and can take their produce home.

The services are monthly and inside during Winter and they do garden-related tasks and plan what they will produce in the coming seasons.

Along with nationwide gardening initiatives, there are plenty of regional garden clubs to join too.

In Worthing, West Sussex, Breathing Spaces offers design services for dementia-friendly gardens, training and runs garden club sessions in the local community.

Whichever route leads to the garden, getting into nature is a way to enjoy a world where time stands still and the senses are alive for those with dementia.

There is no rush here, only calm, beauty and the positive effect of living in the moment. The mind can wander where it wishes without worry, as the plants grow. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

Tips for gardening with dementia

  • Avoid giving someone with Alzheimer’s, sharp gardening tools.
  • Build raised beds to increase accessibility.
  • Ensure all plants are non-toxic. People in later stages of dementia may eat things they would normally never have considered touching.
  • Garden early in the morning to avoid the hottest times of the day.
  • Provide sunscreen and a hat to protect your loved one from the sun.
  • Try planting a container garden, to make the activity more accessible.
  • Avoid paths with dead ends in your garden design, as these can confuse people with dementia – try a circular path instead, or one designed in a figure-of-eight.

Thrive is a charity that works with people living with dementia in gardens to promote wellbeing. It also runs courses for people that would like to work as a Horticulture Therapist with older people with a diverse range of support needs.

Breathing Spaces runs garden club sessions in and around Worthing, Sussex

Find out more about the RHS course on designing dementia-friendly gardens here.

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