Maintaining physical activity, cognitive function and social interaction, all helps someone who has dementia to remain stimulated, feel valued and helpful.
Being involved in gardening can really contribute to a person’s wellbeing, as recent research has found. Gardening is on-going and ever-changing; anyone who has a garden will recognise that there is always something to do. Even if you have no garden, and have only limited space (perhaps for a few pots on windowsills) this is an activity that can give great pleasure. It can distract, engage, add to routines and be a focus for physical activity.
A benefit to the senses
Gardening can provide a fantastic opportunity for stimulation of all the senses. There are the sensations of touch – soil, flowers, bark (but mind the thorns!), and perhaps the feel of a gentle wind, of sun or rain. There is visual stimulation – an amazing range of colour and shapes, sunlight, as well as the wildlife a garden can offer. There are the smells of flowers and vegetables, of herbs or of a freshly mown lawn. And there are the sounds – birdsong, insects, and rustle of wind in trees; and of course, there is taste – eating fruit, vegetables, and even edible flowers such as nasturtiums or marigolds.
Gardening for health
Calming and grounding
It may be that someone’s memory difficulties and cognitive disability can get in the way of a whole sense of what is happening in the garden. However, much activity for someone who has dementia is in the ‘here and now’, and the enjoyment of sharing a current task. This can be so rewarding in a garden, where the calmness of the surroundings can also lead to developing and sustaining relationships, not only through doing things together but also through the talk that always takes place.
Improved physical dexterity
There are many physical benefits – including dexterity skills and broader exercise through potting, planting, digging, sweeping, weeding and pruning – which can lead to reduced agitation and improved sleep.
Preventing cognitive decline
There are cognitive benefits too – in terms of getting the person to help plan the activities, and perhaps to choose seeds and consider how flowers and vegetables are organised in the garden.
There are also huge benefits socially. For example, a caller on the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline said recently that she and her mother had never had so many conversations with others on their street as they did when they cut her hedge for an hour last summer, with Mum sitting on a chair, directing, while the daughter did the hard work!
7 gardening activities for someone with dementia
There are many gardening activities which could involve the person living with dementia, whatever their disabilities. If they are physically able, they may be able to be prompted to do the tasks themselves. Otherwise, helping, or even just watching and feeling involved can be enough.
Tasks are there to do all year round, both indoors and outdoors.
This can involve formal planning of how to lay out the garden. It can include a visit to a local garden centre together – a pleasant experience in itself. These are usually safe and easy to navigate places, often with disabled loos and usually with a café attached!
If the person is able, they can help (or be helped) with preparing beds for sowing, by weeding, removing stones and spreading compost. Getting pots and trays cleaned and ready for sowing is another satisfying task that can be done together.
Planting seeds can be done together, both indoors and out. Together you can buy seeds and sow them in pots or trays in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. If planting directly into the ground, you can work together to make the rows and sow the seeds, and both be involved in watering and tending as shoots appear.
Potting and planting out
As seedlings get strong enough, another shared task is repotting or planting out – careful dexterity may be needed, and lots of kneeling! Raised beds can make life a lot easier if you have the space. Again, the garden centre can be a good place to visit, to buy flowers and vegetables already in pots and ready to plant out at home.
This is the on-going, and sometimes most challenging part of gardening! Weeding and watering, as well as fighting off bugs and pests can be a constant battle, but can be hugely satisfying. There are also tasks to do in dead-heading flowers like roses and dahlias, or the thinning out of plants.
Picking and harvesting
This is the fun part of gardening. Picking flowers together can be a wonderful experience. The joy of picking fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, strawberries, beans, peas etc. can involve all the senses, and can be a great opportunity for reminiscing and sharing experiences.
Using the produce
This can involve flower arranging or even giving bunches of freshly picked flowers to friends and family which can enhance a person’s sense of self-esteem. Using vegetables in cooking together is a multi-sensory activity, and having a herb garden, or even a range of herbs in pots in the kitchen, can bring back memories and encourage conversations. And it can be a very satisfying few hours spent making jam.
Case study: Anne, 92, had kept a garden at home, but sadly had to move to a nursing home as her mobility and cognition reduced. At first she became quite distressed and often called out, as despite the efforts of staff to keep her engaged and stimulated, she spent so many hours alone in the chair next to her bed with just the TV for company.
Fortunately the home found out from her family about her love of her garden and, when a room became available facing onto the garden, Anne was able to move there, where she had a French window that opened onto a patio and a flower bed beyond. Her daughter set up a variety of pots in her view.
Even though she was unable to do much of this herself, Anne could give directions to her daughters, smell and taste the flowers and produce, and, with a bird table set up in her view, could watch the constant stream of birds and even squirrels, come and feed. Her agitation and feelings of isolation were almost immediately reduced, and the new found pleasures enhanced her relationships with staff and other residents.
Dave Bell works on Dementia UK’s Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline which is staffed entirely by specialist dementia nurses. Find out more about the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline at www.dementiauk.org
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