Fresh air, light exercise and interaction with nature — gardening is a great hobby for anyone to have, especially people with dementia. Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert from Wyevale Garden Centres, offers his tips for designing an accessible garden that's soothing and easy to tend.
Gardening as a hobby can really contribute to an individual's health and well-being, as getting out in nature can raise our serotonin levels and make us happier (Psychology Today). Plus, it can even be a bit of a workout, which we all know is good for us!
But gardening is especially beneficial for someone with dementia, as it gives them focus and can act as a welcome distraction from everything else that they're going through (Dementia UK). So, here are some of the ways you can design a garden that people with dementia can help look after and enjoy, to make the most of nature's healing power.
The first thing you'll need to do when creating a dementia-friendly garden is to plan out some pathways that are easy to follow and wide enough for two people to take, as dementia is one of the main causes of disability later in life (Alzheimers.org). So, the pathway will need to cater for people with wheelchairs, people who need to walk with the support of others, and people with any mobility issues that find it difficult to traverse uneven ground.
Provide smooth, well-laid pavement or decking with no tripping hazards, as well as ramps for wheelchair access. It's also important that you include clear and concise signage and outdoor lighting in your dementia friendly garden to make navigating it safer.
Then, provide plenty of furniture so they can rest and take in the sights and sounds of the result of their handiwork. Adding chairs, tables, dining sets, or even a sofa designed for garden use can be a cosy and comfortable way for people with dementia to take a breather and get some sun after their toil — just include a few blankets in case it gets chilly.
Interaction with animals can improve a person with dementia's mood and can be a source of social interaction for lonely people, decreasing their sadness and improving their quality of life (Verywell Health). For some animal therapy, attract as much wildlife to the garden as you can with bird tables and squirrel feeders. Even better, incorporate plenty of plants that act as habitats for birds and small mammals, such as hedgehogs, so that these critters are encouraged to live in the garden full-time.
Hawthorne, bramble, buddleia, holly, and common British wildflowers are popular additions that can help bring the local wildlife to the garden, plus they're quite easy to plant and care for. It's best to have your gardeners growing a variety of homes and food sources for these creatures, so encourage them to include as many different trees, hedges, shrubs and flowers as you can.
Gardens that appeal to all five of the senses, including sight, sound, smell, touch and taste will be the most beneficial for people with dementia. The secret is variety, so make sure you have plenty of different species available for them to plant and interact with. Here's some examples to get you started:
Sight: Vary the look of your dementia garden by planting big, colourful blooms like hydrangeas and peonies, as well of lots of calming greenery and unusual purple-leafed plants like the filbert hazel tree.
Sound: Another benefit of attracting wildlife to the garden is the sound of twittering birds, but don't forget that long grasses and rustling leaves are also important to build a soothing soundscape.
Smell: During the day, the garden air should be heavy with the scents of fragrant flowers such as geranium and lavender. Then, in the evening, herbs such as rosemary and thyme start to emit their scent too so try to plant both kinds to have a constant source.
Touch: Provide a mix of prickly shrubs, smooth succulents, and soft downy plants like lamb's ear for them to touch and compare.
Taste: Although it's nice to pick and eat fresh berries from the garden, it can be difficult for patients with dementia to know which berries are safe to eat and which aren't. To be on the safe side, stick to more familiar food sources like vegetable patches and fruit trees so there's no confusion, and avoid toxic plants in general.
By incorporating all these different elements into the garden, even those who don't want to get their hands dirty can benefit from the soothing powers of nature.
The tips in this guide can help you to design a garden that is easy to navigate, provides sensory experiences, and can attract lots of little animals to brighten up people's days. Dementia comes with a lot of challenges, but a little bit of gardening might be able to help.