Gardening: A Purposeful Activity for People with Dementia

July 29, 2019

There’s been so much in the news recently about the benefits of purposeful activity for people with dementia. The power of music has been widely extolled in the media and NICE Quality Standards now recognise how important social interaction, music and the arts are to people living with dementia. But what about gardening? Now I’m not what you would call a keen gardener. I don’t like getting my hands dirty, I hate spiders and bugs and I’ve no idea what plant grows where.  But even for someone like me there are so many therapeutic benefits to gardening.

Thinking back to my days as a newly qualified OT working at a Day Hospital. Our garden provided hours of fun activities, distraction, relaxation, social interaction and reminiscence. It was also a safe place for “time out” whether that was a service user feeling upset or agitated, or a staff member feeling pretty much the same way. It was a fantastic resource and we were lucky to have it

So back to the “purposeful” bit. We all need “something to do”. Someone with dementia may find it harder to complete tasks they once took for granted, leading to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. They need to feel useful again, to have a sense of purpose and to experience success even in a small way. Men in particular like to feel that they have a role in their environment. It can be a challenge to find out what someone can and can’t do in the garden, but roles often evolve. People will gravitate to areas that are familiar to them and skills become more apparent. Bill might be content to sort out the plant pots and seed trays while Dennis grabs a sweeping brush and Olive starts to inspect the roses for greenfly. Maureen may feel that it is her job to make drinks for the workers while Evie is happy to just sit and watch (perhaps she is reminiscing).

Gardening provides lots of opportunities for reminiscence activities using all our senses. The smell of roses, lavender or even horse manure can evoke memories. Handling old tools or tasting fresh tomatoes can stimulate conversations and shared experiences. Even just a walk outside listening to birds chirping or leaves rustling can be therapeutic and distract someone from anxious thoughts. All this with a free dose of fresh air and much needed vitamin D. What’s not to like.

If you don’t have a garden or outside space you can use, then be creative and resourceful. Maybe you could share resources with a local school, community centre or allotment, or even just grow plants on the windowsill and have a trip to a garden centre. The benefits are endless. I think gardening has to be up there with music and the arts as a purposeful and therapeutic activity for people with dementia. This time next year I bet there will be a documentary about it! Happy Gardening.

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Katie Farrar

Occupational Therapist

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