Gardening is an excellent form of both exercise and sensory stimulation for the elderly. This is especially true for those who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, since gardening keeps the brain active, helps create a routine, stimulates the mind and senses, and provides a feeling of purpose. In fact, studies have found that gardening can reduce the risk of dementia by as much as 36% by engaging critical functions like dexterity, problem-solving, endurance, and sensory awareness.
Among the numerous physical and mental health benefits of gardening for seniors is the fact that gardening can lower levels of cortisol, which can alleviate stress and even reduce high blood pressure. Being out in the sunshine to create a beautiful space will also bring peace and reduce anxiety by increasing serotonin. In fact, horticulture therapy often works as a natural antidepressant. Gardening boosts heart health and reduces the risk of stroke, partly by increasing Vitamin D levels, and counts towards the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. It also increases mobility, balance, and strength, giving seniors an increased sense of independence and self-esteem. Gardening can even enhance memories of happy gardening days in the past.
One of the best things about gardening for seniors is that it is adaptable and can be modified to meet a variety of abilities. While gardening can have a risk of falls, overheating, and wandering, there are steps caregivers can take to keep seniors safe while repeating the benefits of gardening. However, there are extra considerations that need to be applied when designing a garden for those with dementia.
Create a sensory experience. This helps keep the brain active. Try growing plants that can stimulate the senses of touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight. Many plants have a wonderfully tactile feel, such as lamb’s ear. Tall grasses can provide interesting sounds when moved by a breeze. Scents such as lavender can not only attract butterflies and bees, but also help relax the mind. Herbs like rosemary, mint, and thyme, as well as fruit bushes and trees, are all edible.
Make it safe and accessible. Those with dementia have a tendency to wander. Consider using high fences and locked gates to keep them within the garden area. Keep pathways and surfaces non-slip to reduce the risk of falling. Also, keep these surfaces one color, since contrasting flooring can look like steps to those with dementia. Make paths wide enough for a wheelchair and for two people to walk side-by-side. You can also place signs along the way to make the garden easier to navigate. Using containers or raised flowerbeds and vegetable patches will allow seniors to be able to plant, weed, and harvest from standing height. Make sure all plants you use are nontoxic and avoid thorns or prickles, as those with dementia might try to eat pretty flowers or grab hold of plants.
Add a bench. Seniors and those with dementia tend to tire easily, so placing a bench or chair near the garden will give them a place to rest after physical exertion, or if they start to feel dizzy or overheated. It also adds beauty to the garden.
Attract local wildlife. Having birds, bees, and butterflies nearby can improve mood and have a calming effect on those living with dementia. Adding bird baths and bird feeders will attract more feathered friends. Picking the right plants also goes a long way toward attracting wildlife. For example, choosing plants rich in pollen, such as sunflowers and lavender, will attract bees and butterflies.
Protect seniors from the sun. Be careful to avoid the garden in the hottest part of the day, or bring an umbrella along for protection. Be sure to also wear sunscreen. Bring a water bottle and be sure to stay hydrated.
Share responsibility. Giving an elderly person responsibility for a few garden tasks can be very empowering for them. While you may have to prompt them to complete the jobs, they will feel a sense of purpose one they accomplish them.
Taking the above steps to create an attractive and safe garden will provide a wonderful source of exercise and enjoyment this spring and summer for seniors and those living with dementia!