Could horticultural therapy alleviate the plight of dementia sufferers and their carers?
8:00am Sunday 29th September 2013 in News
WE all feel better after an hour or two of gardening; the fresh air, the exercise and the simple joy of being surrounded by beautiful flowers and the fruits of our labour.
But for some people, the benefits go even further.
"A garden can help people living with dementia," says Jeremy Hughes, Alzheimer's Society chief executive. "They can enjoy socialising, as well as taking part in physical activity and stimulating the senses, all of which greatly improve their wellbeing."
The regularity of nurturing plants on a daily basis also adds structure to the day of those living with dementia, while being involved in gardening activities like sowing seeds and watering plants gives a better sense of control, the Society explains.
The cycle of sowing, nurturing, growing and harvesting plants, vegetables and flowers helps give a better perception of their lives. Also, the delicate nature of some gardening activities can help to maintain or improve fine motor skills and increase spatial awareness.
Garden activities can also help those with dementia talk about their past lives by reminding them about similar activities when they were younger, for example what plants, flowers or vegetables they used to grow.
Research shows that gardening can also help the wellbeing of younger people with early onset dementia.
"Younger people with dementia want and need activities which are stimulating, fulfilling and productive because they are still seeking activities which mimic the workplace model," says Jill Walton, support group co-ordinator at the Frontotemporal Dementia Support Group (www.ftdsg.org), which provides support and information to carers of young people with dementia.
Thrive, a national charity supporting horticultural therapy, holds a database of around 900 garden projects in the UK and can put you in touch with a project in your local area (www.thrive.org.uk or 0118 988 5688).
Most Thrive gardeners are referred by social services or through a professional such as their GP or care professional, but others start at a project through their own initiative and their place may be funded by family and friends.
These larger projects are clearly wonderful, but for many people, gardening at home is where the real therapy lies. Indeed, recent research by Alzheimer's Society, in partnership with Homebase, discovered 83% of people with dementia want to live in their own homes for as long as possible; so how can you create a home garden, or modify an existing one, to give people with dementia the greatest therapy?
Thrive recommends straightforward way-finding: the layout of paths - essentially a loop - could take the visitor on a journey and return them to the starting point, while specimen trees and features such as pergolas, sculptures, bird tables and large pots can act as landmarks.
Create a series of places to sit, with focal points to look at. These should also be protected from bright sunlight, chilling winds and deep shade, perhaps introducing a canopy or a parasol to prevent exposure to the elements.
Use gentle changes rather than strong contrasts. For example, avoid strong shadows on paths, which might look like holes, abrupt changes in paving materials which may look like steps, or reflective materials which might look like water. These might give rise to general confusion and agitation and also present fall hazards.
When adding a walkway, Alzheimer's Society (www.alzheimers.org.uk) recommends paths which are constant, such as a figure of eight, as paths with abrupt endings can disorientate people with dementia.
Scents can often create memories, so introduce plants to the garden that have great smells, such as lavender, rosemary, mint or thyme.
Sensory experience can be increased through introducing plants which are soft to touch such as lambs' ears or bunny tails, an ornamental grass which is soft and fluffy.
Of course, it's wise to remove dangerous plants as dementia sufferers may not recall which plants are poisonous or irritate their skin. Similarly, any plants with thorns or which may sting should be removed from the garden altogether.
If new plants are needed, select these with the person living with dementia. They may have favourites which bring back memories of happy times. Go to the garden centre and let the dementia sufferer physically handle the plants, flowers and gardening items which may trigger memories more effectively than looking at pictures.
For many of us, gardening is an enjoyable pastime - but for others, it's a lifeline.
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