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Senior gardening: learn more about the benefits of a therapeutic garden

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14th Mar 2018

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A garden or a little piece of nature to tend to is vital for senior gardening. Read our blog and learn how to make your own!

Senior gardening: couple gardening together

Ever wondered why so many seniors take up gardening after they’ve retired? Aside from having the luxury of more spare time, tending to a garden or simply enjoying being in contact with nature has several health benefits that can help seniors feel better, avoid stress and anxiety and live a fuller life.

If you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense: a garden holds all the elements to trigger your senses – you can smell the flowers and see their vibrant colors, feel the sun, wind or grass, hear the bees and even taste what you’ve grown. Perhaps most importantly, gardening makes you move and get out there. Can you see the benefits of spending time in your garden?

Moreover, tending to a garden, especially after you’ve retired, can give you a sense of purpose and help fight depression. According to a report written by McCaffrey R, W and Hansom C, “Millions of people experience depression every year, including the elderly, where it can be particularly debilitating as it affects physical, mental, and social functioning. Access to the outdoors, and increased sunlight, might help treat depression, as well as improve morale, self-confidence, cooperation, social interaction, and physical functioning (…).”  No wonder Therapeutic or Healing gardens exist, and are very much appreciated by their caregivers.

Stannah invites you to explore the wonderful world of working in the garden. We’ll examine how a garden can be used to heal and all the benefits it can bring to your life. And who knows, maybe this will be your next DIY garden project!

What is a therapeutic garden?

Aren’t all gardens therapeutic? Being in a well-maintained or beautiful garden may indeed relieve stress or promote a feeling of joy; however, when we talk about a “therapeutic garden” or a “healing garden”, we’re referring to green spaces that were designed to be emotionally beneficial and brighten up areas otherwise lacking in natural beauty (for example, hospitals, nursing homes or other healthcare facilities). These gardens are specifically designed for their healing and restorative qualities. Everyone can enjoy a therapeutic garden, whether you’re young or old, sick or healthy. So how can we make our own gardens more therapeutic?

“ To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow” Audrey Hepburn

According to Clare Cooper Marcus, an emeritus professor in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, “Spending time interacting with nature in a well-designed garden won’t cure your cancer or heal a badly burned leg. But there is good evidence it can reduce your levels of pain and stress—and, by doing that, boost your immune system in ways that allow your own body and other treatments to help you heal.” Seniors often suffer from rheumatic conditions that lead to pain and discomfort, also anxiety and fear of falling can raise stress levels. And let’s face it, can’t we all benefit from an extra immune system boost? Therefore, tending to a garden, or even just sitting in a garden can help your overall wellbeing.  Let’s look at the elements that make-up a healing garden, what types exist and what you can adopt for your own garden.

senior couple having fun in the garden

Healing gardens – a closer look.

Wikipedia defines a therapeutic garden as follows: “A therapeutic garden is an outdoor garden space that has been specifically designed to meet the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of the people using the garden as well as their caregivers, family members and friends”. There is actually a distinction between a healing and a therapeutic garden. A healing garden includes all aspects of nature; you’ve got your green plants, water feature, flowers and anything else that connects us to the elements. A therapeutic garden can be considered a subcategory and is built specifically to be part of a (holistic) treatment. Apart from the elements mentioned here, what else can we find in these gardens? We’ve used an article on “ Nature that Nurtures” from Scientific American, to back up some of the elements that make up a healing garden. This is what we found there needs to be:

  • Ornamental trees.
  • Vegetables/fruit trees.
  • Hose bib (water source).
  • Plenty of sunlight balanced out by some shade.
  • Plants that attract birds and butterflies, engage multiple senses.
  • Easy entry, make the garden easy to access, not for example behind a heavy door.
  • Seating, like benches and easy to move chairs, this will facilitate private conversation.
  • Pathways, this enables less mobile users to use the garden too, for example if you have a walker.
  • A water feature, be careful to choose something that soothes you, a dripping faucet for example doesn’t.

Some of the  elements listed above are a bit more difficult to adopt for a smaller garden, but let’s use them as inspiration. Start by asking yourself these two questions: what are you looking for in a garden? And what do you want to gain from it?

Gardening and mental health

We can already tell that gardening and being in touch with nature has a positive effect on people’s health and has physical benefits, because you’re outside and moving around in the fresh air. But what kind of concrete mental health benefits does it have? Believe it or not, gardening has been used as a form of therapy since the 1800s! Humans have always suffered from stress, depression and negative self-esteem. As we grow older, these feelings stay with us. Hopefully, we get a bit better at managing them, although we can all use a helping hand when it comes to our wellbeing. Let’s take a look at how Mother Nature helps us overcome these struggles.

Grandmother and grandchild gardening together

Several sources show us what working in the garden can do for our overall health, Psychologytoday.com for example. We’ve listed the main benefits for you to look at and take with you as you design your own therapeutic garden:

  • A sense of responsibility, self-esteem and accomplishment. Plants really do respond to care. Knowing that living elements can’t go on without you gives you a true sense of responsibility and need in this world. The garden depends on your time and care but it gives you so much in return. Seeing what you’ve sown, grown or nurtured to adulthood will boost your self-esteem and therefore your sense of accomplishment.

Flowers are restful to look at. They have no emotions or conflict” Sigmund Freud

  • A connection to the world arounds us. Sometimes we all need a reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us. Working on your garden will make you feel connected to the earth and to natur. It will open your eyes and remind you that you are part of it all. It will make you feel more centered, which is essential when you’re struggling with the blues.
  • Happy Hormones. working in the garden will require some energy. As you use that energy your body will release serotonin and dopamine – hormones that make us feel happy. And of course, having done some physical work during the day will make you feel happy to go to bed at night and is the best medicine to induce sleep.

Daisies peaceful sitting on a garden chair

  • Relaxation. “Flowers are restful to look at. They have no emotions or conflict” said the father of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. In your garden you are in your own world. You do not need to worry about anything or anyone. No pressures, no deadlines – just you and your plants. You can let go of things that are worrying you during the day and enjoy peace of mind.
  • It promotes contact with others. Gardening is something that can be enjoyed by the young and old alike. Spending an afternoon in the garden with your friends and family is one of the most enjoyable activities you can do. Gardening or picking the fruits of your labor with your children and grandchildren is a precious memory in the making.
  • Blow off some steam. Anyone who has ever worked in a garden knows that sometimes it’s not all beautiful flowers and humming birds. You need to trim the plants for example. But, luckily you do not need extensive hard labor to keep your garden nice and neat! Use these moments to blow off some steam, you can, for example, sit in a comfortable lawn chair while you give that hedge a piece of your mind by cutting and trimming it. And in case you do need some work done that’s a bit too hard for you, well that’s why we have those strong young grandkids, right?

These are just some of the main reasons why gardening has such a positive effect on one’s wellbeing. The only way you can experience these is by simply going for it and experiencing its effects for yourself.

Which aromatic plants should you plant, and why?

As we’ve mentioned, there are some elements that should be included in your garden like flowers and plants that attract butterflies and birds. This is where you can let your imagination flow freely. Think about what kind of smells and colors you would like to have. You also need to consider what can actually grow in your corner of the Earth. You might love a beautiful lemon tree or a tomato plant for example, but be realistic. If you live in The Netherlands, for example, a lemon tree might be difficult, but a beautiful apple tree could be just perfect. Let’s take a look at the possibilities, then you just have to decide what you want and what’s doable.

Gardener planting seeds in the garden

Aromatic and herbal plants.

We’ve selected some of our favorites here at Stannah. Of course there’re more options out there, this is just a selection to get you motivated and inspired. We’ve looked at the aesthetic beauty of the plant, aroma and the health benefits these plants can provide. Please note that these suggestions can be used through simple preparations like making tea or using them in a salad. Unless you’re a professional herbalist, you should not venture into planting and growing herbal plants with medicinal properties if you don’t know what you’re doing, as they can do more harm than good.

Harvested Lavender

  • Lavender produces calming, soothing and sedative effects when inhaled. It can be made into a tea, used in soap or for scenting you drawers.
  • (Pepper)Mint, one of the oldest herbs to be used by man, has mild analgesic actions, calms an upset stomach, settles gas pains, prevents nausea and cools the skin.

Potpourri in glas container

  • Chamomile, when made into a tea, has a soothing effect. You can also gargle it to relieve mouth ulcers or cool irritated skin.
  • Lemon balm has a pleasant, fresh aroma. It is a really aromatic plant that will spread easily and bring its fragrance to your garden.
  • Jasmine. The word means “Fragrant Flower” in Persian and is widely used as part of aromatherapy, it can function as an anti-depressant, aphrodisiac or to induce sleep. It’s also used to restore moisture and elasticity in skin, reducing the appearance of wrinkles.
  • Calendula is a beautiful golden flower that will light up your garden, it’s an edible flower that can be used to treat skin problems when made into a poultice, and help relieve digestive problems.
  • Rosemary is a very fragrant plant, which is widely used in cooking and is a great addition to your garden. It is a good source of iron, calcium and vitamin B-6.
  • Sage has green leaves are often used in cooking. It can improve appetite and prevent flatulence. It’s found to be neuroprotective and it’s even used to treat Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression. When inhaling an infusion, it can help with respiratory problems and lessens menopausal symptoms.
  • Echinacea is a pretty pinkish flower that is very popular during flu season, as it strengths your immune system and enables the body to fight bacterial and viral infections.

You can get more inspiration and information from the good people of Natural Living ideas by clicking here.

Design your garden in such a way that you have your aromatic plants strategically placed to enhance their aromas and beauty. When it comes to planting vegetables and fruit trees, do a little research and look at what will grow in your climate, and when you need to sow/plant it. There are specific times of the year that vegetables need to be planted and harvested. You can also try using a planting calendar, which will give you all the information you need on when to sow, plant, harvest etc. If a kitchen garden is what makes you happy then by all means, go for it!

Gardening tools you should use

To make the gardening experience as beneficial and pleasant as possible, you need to use appropriate clothing and tools. Luckily there’re a lot of garden tools especially designed for seniors to help you do just that.

Straw hat, gardening gloves and scissors on mosaic table

Gardening aids for the elderly.

Clothing: you need to be comfortable and able to move around easily. Remember that you need to protect yourself against the elements. You’ll need:

  • A sturdy straw hat, to protect your head and face against the sun or a baseball cap with a broad rim and neck protection.
  • A pair of gardening gloves to protect your hands from getting dirty, the sun and any thorns or other possibly harmful weeds like poison ivy.
  • An apron to protect your clothes and give you a place to keep smaller tools like scissors – with the added benefit that you can dry your hands on it!

 

Tools that will help you work in and around the garden include:

  • A Garden Kneeler, which is especially handy as it is a combination of a knee mat and a robust standing aid. Choose one with a soft foam pad as you will use it a lot. It can even function as a seat when needed, as the structure around it will help you provide support when you need to get up again.
  • A Garden Litter Picker, can also come in handy. It will help you to pick up litter that has found its way into your garden, or simply something that you’ve dropped. The picker is so useful because it means that you do not need to bend over as much.
  • A weeder
  • A trowel
  • A hoe
  • A spade
  • A pruner
  • A scooper
  • A garden fork

Easy-to-handle versions of all of these tools are available. Especially designed for senior gardeners, they have longer handles, non-slip grips with arm supports and are lightweight. Ask your local garden center for more information about these tools, and now you have some ideas for your next birthday or Christmas presents!

Gardening and reduced mobility – where there’s a will, there’s a way

Of course, we at Stannah understand that if access to your backyard, front garden or any outdoor area is difficult due to stairs, it may be a challenge to embrace this new form of therapy. But as the saying goes: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Take a look at our Outdoor stairlift. It could be the most important tool of all for you. It will enable you to effortlessly go down to your garden or patio, and maybe even more importantly, bring you back up the stairs after a productive gardening session. Don’t forget any groceries or other items you might have with you. The stairlift has been designed to do exactly what the name suggests: get you outside! So it will work all year round, even in sub-zero temperatures or during a heavy rainstorm. No worries, as long as you can get to your beloved garden, it’s all good!

Outdoor stairlift in the

Remember, “Gardens and flowers have a way of bringing people together, drawing them from their homes.” As Clare Ansberry wrote in her book “The woman of Troy Hill (…)” go venture into the magical world that Mother Nature provides for us, have fun and make the most of each and every day!