It looks as if winter is behind us as the days grow warmer and spring flowers can be seen poking through the dead leaves and brown grass. This is the time when avid gardeners start planning their projects and getting everything in shape for the season. Many of us look at these masters of the soil and envy their diligence and special gift of producing beautiful lawns, bright flowers and delicious vegetables. These people are often noted as having a “green thumb”. Those who do not possess this digit often claim to have killed every plant they have ever touched. Regardless of which group you fall in, there is still a lot to be gained by working with plants and nature in general. This is especially true if you are a caregiver and in need of meaningful activities to do with your loved one.
The benefits of working with and being surrounded by plants and nature are numerous. Gardens have been a part of mankind’s history since the beginning. Developed first out of necessity, then later on as a way to inspire and provide beauty, gardens have many powers, both tangible and intangible. The use of gardening for physical and mental well-being is called horticulture therapy and has been used and praised by professionals for many years. Jan Hoetker Doherty, a Master Gardener, who provided over 9 years of horticulture therapy in nursing homes, Alzheimer’s care communities and senior centers says
“Horticulture, or garden, therapy provides people with cognitive and spiritual stimulation through the senses: feeling the soft leaves, smelling the fragrant blossoms, and seeing the vivid colors of nature. It is also a good physical activity as the person uses the hands to prune and arrange the plants. Simple garden activities are especially therapeutic for patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and can be enjoyed individually or in small groups. They can also be done with family and friends of all generations. These garden activity ideas can be easily modified for different levels of memory loss. Taking care of a plant can be an occupational task, giving the person with dementia a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Arranging flowers can be an art activity that is easy and has no right or wrong answers.”
Of course, the ability level of the person with Alzheimer’s will dictate the extent and the scope of these activities. For example, someone in the later stages may be overwhelmed by a full on garden. In this case, perhaps tending to a window box inside their home may be more appropriate or arranging flowers in a vase. It is important to scale all activities to their current level of abilities so as not to create frustration, confusion and even a sense of failure if the task cannot be fulfilled. For those with a high level of activity, get them involved in as many stages as possible, planting, tending, harvesting (if applicable). As a caregiver you will know how involved your loved one can be.
It is also important to keep in mind that in addition to the benefits of working in a garden, there are just as many simply being in or around a garden. As mentioned earlier, they can be calming respites, for both the loved one and the caregiver, they can provide a space to receive visitors as well as encourage interaction, inspiration and long-term memory recall.
Gardening Tips For Alzheimer’s Caregivers
(While gardening may seem like a basic activity, there are a few things caregivers can do to ensure the activity is a pleasant experience for everyone.)
- Create a garden in the shape of a figure eight, as dead end gardens can cause confusion.
- Ensure all plants are non-toxic.
- Build raised beds so that gardening is more accessible and enjoyable.
- Garden early in the morning to avoid the hottest times of the day.
- Provide adequate sunscreen and a hat to protect your loved one from the sun.
- Avoid giving someone with dementia any sharp gardening tools.
- Keep it lighthearted and fun!
The study’s lead researcher, Rebecca Whear, said:
“There is an increasing interest in improving dementia symptoms without the use of drugs. We think that gardens could be benefiting dementia sufferers by providing them with sensory stimulation and an environment that triggers memories. They not only present an opportunity to relax in a calming setting, but also to remember skills and habits that have brought enjoyment in the past.”
It’s hard to deny the benefits of horticulture therapy, but what if you don’t have outdoor space of your own? People living in apartments or in large urban areas may not be able to plant a garden. No worries? There are several options to consider. Window gardens and houseplants can provide many of the benefits that come with hands on application. Most cities also provide space for public operated gardens or have volunteer garden organizations that tend to public spaces. Another source would be gardening clubs or botanical gardens that offer classes or tours. As mentioned before, just being around plants and nature will have positive effects for both the person with Alzheimer’s as well as the caregiver. So, find your green thumb and start growing!