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Blog 4 ‘We need a sensory garden!’

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Intro to the series

In this monthly series we explore ways to make the most of the outside spaces around your care setting and help your residents benefit from stepping outside and enjoying meaningful activities there, as and when they choose. Step Change Design focuses on encouraging care settings to take a fresh look at their care culture and care practices in order to engage actively and meaningfully with their outside spaces with their residents.

We hear it a lot in the course of our conversations with care settings about their outside spaces:

We need a sensory garden!” and “If only we had a prettier space or more stimulating plants /

features / elements, residents would go out more”. Are we forgetting that going outside is a sensory experience in itself? It is easy for us to forget that we are exposed to a full range of sensory stimuli across a typical day: from wrapping our fingers round that first mug of tea at breakfast, getting hugs from the kids and loved ones, looking out the window to see what to wear to go outside later, stepping out the door to go to work or to chat to the neighbours, feeling a refreshing breeze on our face, greeting the postwoman along the street: we are exposed to so many different experiences that awaken and lift our energy and awareness. These are all part of a daily routine, we hardly ever stop to think about them.

But what about those under your care whose morning routines will be much more limited, moving from one room to an adjacent one, experiencing similar temperatures across different places, similar smells, similar lighting, possibly similar décor, taking the usual route from bedroom to eating area or lounge? For anyone in these highly routinised and unstimulating situations, their level of sensory activation is clearly much lower than for those who arrived from elsewhere that day.

So, starting from where your residents are, opening the bedroom window (however briefly) to smell the fresh air, getting dressed, looking at the view outside, pointing out the chirpy birdsong, or the cheeky squirrel you spotted can energise and enthuse and break the predictability for the resident in quite dramatic ways that helps get their day off to a great start. None of these little tweaks to the usual care practices at the start of the day involve a ‘sensory garden’. They simply require care staff and managers to remain alert and open to ‘nature’s news of the day’ – those comings and goings that are happening every minute of the day just outside the window and door - in the garden that you already have!

You see, we really need do nothing to create these encounters. The outdoors, nature, wildlife and the weather are all producing a symphony of sensory happenings every minute of the day, every day of the year and without requiring any input from you, either financial or organisational. Mother Nature is your voluntary Activity Coordinator – ready and willing to respond to your attention and engagement with her.

So what is stopping you? For starters, a care home can be a very busy environment with sometimes hardly a moment to draw breath. Looking out of the window, or simply stepping outside, can be easily overlooked, particularly if to do so would give the false impression of daydreaming or slacking in some way. Here is one important tip you can introduce straightaway: give permission for staff to notice and engage with what is going on outdoors, to acknowledge the weather and natural happenings and to involve residents and other staff members (and families) in what you notice out there whenever possible.

Next, take a fresh look at your windowsills and natural routes to doors that lead outside. It’s important to be able to notice what is happening outside and to be able to get to these entrances and exits easily.

Obscured views and cluttered sills can really scupper any chance to bring Mother Nature into the care setting! Be prepared for residents to want to act on the happenings that you (or they) have pointed out by making outdoor wear (shoes, brollies, throws, coats and hats, for example) easily available near the exits and entrances to the garden.

Having a coat stand, hat rack or similar area for all-weather gear conveniently to hand makes it very obvious to everyone across the care setting that you expect and welcome residents, families and staff to engage with the outdoors, whenever they wish. Think afresh about the morning routines you do with your residents. You probably know those who will want to go outside at some point during the day (or evening) so why not ensure they are dressed appropriately to do this from the get-go?

As the sun grows brighter and the weather becomes milder, there will be plenty to do outdoors following the darker and colder days of winter: weeding, clearing dead leaves, sweeping up. And then there are the tools to re-oil and wipe down and the shed to tidy up. Windy days are no obstacle either: they are perfect for hanging the washing out!

Informal outdoor gatherings like these are so valuable for involving residents in their garden. Now you are all outside, what do you notice here? Are there any suggestions for spending longer outside? More places to sit and enjoy the views? A fence to stop the cold wind slicing round the corner of the building? Hot water bottles and blankets to take outside with you? It’s important to break the default practices that can assume that meals and drinks have to be taken indoors.

What about ways to extend these visits outdoors as well? Why not arrange for tea and biscuits to be brought outside for the cleaning gang to reflect on their work? Or cushions to make it more comfortable for people to sit and chat and share a joke or a story. Encourage families to take their loved ones outside during their visits, too. And ask them for any feedback or advice on how to make their visits outside even more enjoyable. Their practical insights could help make crossing the threshold even easier to achieve, resulting in more opportunities to enjoy the natural stimulation that simply being outdoors provide. They may also suggest things that their family member treasured in their garden or used to enjoy doing. Do they have items to bring in from home or do they know of ways to help recreate these familiar and cherished memories in their outside space where they are now?

Every part of a garden has the potential to activate and stimulate each of our five senses. We do not need to create a specifically sensory garden, it already is! Feeling a different surface underfoot, the warmth of the sun or the crisp coolness of a breeze are very powerful stimulants for people compared to the unchanging environment indoors. Picking up on the curious fragrance from a nearby bush, noticing the sound of robins defending their territories or even watching the antics of squirrels as they try to raid the birdfeeder, all of these are natural, everyday happenings in most gardens and are sensory experiences with rich opportunities to generate conversations and elicit powerful memories. It doesn’t need gimmicks, gizmos or technology, it just requires the person accompanying the resident outdoors to be alert and open to all that Mother Nature is offering you.

Connect with Step Change Design on Twitter Debbie Carroll @stepchgdesign

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