Even if your loved one has never been an avid gardener, introducing them to blooms now could be a good idea: this green hobby has been shown to benefit dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.
Long-term care facilities sometimes refer to it as “horticultural therapy” — the connection that dementia patients develop to past and future through tending plants, indoors or out.
Gardening is also an easy distraction — if you’re trying to get your loved one to stop fixating on a certain topic or question, or encouraging them to stop pacing, a garden offers an alternate focus.
For your charge, actually tending to a green space — through simple activities like gentle weeding, digging holes for plants, watering, and deadheading — offers the moderate exercise that can help dementia patients sleep. Fresh air can stimulate appetite, which is often lacking as Alzheimer’s progresses. Gardening also reduces stress and increases Vitamin D.
Whether you have a large yard or a small space near a window, you can set up a green space that will bring these benefits to both you and your charge. Safe and fun is your goal. Keep these points in mind as you plan.
The ground needs to be level
That’s obvious on paths and walkways, but lawns and grown-covered areas can be bumpy too.
No dead ends
Straight pathways can be confusing for dementia patients, especially when they end abruptly. Camouflage this with strategically places pots or plantings of shrubs so your charge is encouraged to investigate without becoming agitated.
Consider raised beds
The added height gives better access to plants and will make it easier for your loved one to stay at it longer without getting sore.
Choose plastic containers
So if they get knocked over they don’t break.
Be mindful of irritants
Your charge’s skin could be extra sensitive from some medications, so choose plants that won’t make that worse. Iris, for example, while beautiful can be a problem.
Get the right tools
If they want to get their hands dirty, your charge needs tools that are appropriate for their level of agility — otherwise they can become frustrated.
What to plant
It’s true that there are plants associated with memory improvement (Lemon balm, for example), but don’t fixate on that.
The point of finding a patch of outdoor space to tend and nurture is to engage the senses. Choose plants with fragrance, in bright colors so they can be distinguished one from the other, and of different heights and sizes.
Know what’s toxic
An Alzheimer’s patient may try to eat plants that aren’t food. This is not a problem with many plants, but some can be poisonous (such as daffodils, wisteria, narcissus, lily of the valley, hydrangea, chrysanthemum and others).
If you have no space
The U.K. Alzheimer’s Society, for one, runs “group gardening services” once a week throughout the summer. Groups of 10 to 15 members can spend a few hours growing plants in raised beds and are able to take home their produce.
During the winter, the sessions are held monthly, and indoors, and members focus on garden-related tasks, as well as planning what to grow in the next seasons.
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