I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more. — John Burroughs (1837-1921), American naturalist and writer
Now that bouquets of golden daffodils light the neighborhood and the days linger longer, I can’t wait to hustle out into the sunshine to pull weeds, smell carpets of violets and plan my vegetable garden. I might even get my lawnmower blade sharpened this year!
But why do we humans yearn to get out in the yard and get our hands dirty?
A little digging into the research and musing about my childhood remind me of many amazing benefits of gardening. And as it happens, gardening is especially well-suited to seniors. Our caregivers love to share the experience of gardening with our clients. After all, many have been planting and sowing and canning and sharing the fruits of their love and labor for many decades.
The many benefits of gardening
Although my mom worked very hard tending the house and the kids, she seemed to especially enjoy her time in the yard planting marigolds, staking up tomato plants as well as teaching me how to pull weeds and water just so. When Mom walked outside she seemed to inhale joy and exhale her cares. Maybe that was why we had such a good time in the garden together – it was fun, like a game that rewards everyone for playing.
The rewards or benefits of gardening (or just being outside) for seniors have been studied and well document. Indeed this is one of those areas of human endeavor that we intuitively know or feel is good for us – simply because it is so satisfying.
In a nutshell, here is a list of many of the benefits of gardening for elders:
- Is an enjoyable form of exercise
- Increases levels of physical activity and helps mobility and flexibility
- Encourages use of all motor skills
- Improves endurance and strength
- Helps prevent diseases like osteoporosis
- Reduces stress levels and promotes relaxation
- Provides stimulation and interest in nature and the outdoors
- Improves wellbeing as a result of social interaction
- Can provide nutritious, home-grown food
Studies confirm many benefits
In an article in called “Well Being Gardening – Gardening for the Body, Mind & Spirit, the authors describe a number of research studies. Here are just a few I find especially interesting:
Brain health – A study that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found that those who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account.
Healing – Interacting with nature also helps our bodies heal. A landmark study found that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery who looked out at a view of trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer complaints, and took less pain medication, than those who looked out at a brick wall.
Immunity – In 2007, University of Colorado neuroscientist discovered that certain strains of harmless soil-borne Mycobacterium vaccae sharply stimulated the human immune system. It’s quite likely that exposure to soil bacteria plays an important role in developing a strong immune system.
Health considerations in the garden
So, how can we make gardening easy and fun for our elders? One way is to put ourselves in their shoes, walker or wheelchair and try to envision how things need to work to guarantee a good time.
Consider these conditions
1) Skin – fragile, thinning skin makes older people susceptible to bumps, bruises and sunburn.
2) Vision – It may be hard to see distances, so plan for up-close activities.
3) Mental abilities – Your seniors’ abilities may be impacted by illness or dementia. Try to restructure to make it simple.
4) Heat & Cold – Think about the elements, providing shade, warmth, hydration to the equation.
5) Falls prevention – be aware of safety issues and how to keep balance.
How to make beds & tools senior-friendly
With a little imagination and Yankee know-how, we can modify garden spaces, tools and equipment to make it easier for older people to use. Suggestions include:
- Try using walls and trellis spaces to make garden beds accessible for planting and harvesting.
- Raising beds to help seniors avoid bending and stooping
- Using retractable hanging baskets, wheelbarrows and containers on castors to make suitable movable and elevated garden beds
- Finding adaptive tools and equipment – available at some hardware shops
- Using foam, tape and plastic tubing to modify existing tools for a better grip
- Using lightweight tools that are easier to handle
- Providing shade areas for working in summer months
Tips for safe gardening
Secure gates and fences if memory loss is an issue.
Ensure that paths and walkways are flat and non-slip.
Warm up before gardening and encourage frequent breaks.
Prevent sun exposure by working in the garden early in the morning or late in the day. Wear a hat and apply sunscreen frequently.
Drink water or juice, and avoid alcohol.
Wear protective shoes, lightweight comfortable clothes that cover exposed skin, a hat and gardening gloves.
Store garden equipment safely.