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Gardening with dementia

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My co-founder and I launched Growing Support in 2013 after our own experiences of visiting older relatives living in care and finding them lonely, bored and frustrated despite being surrounded by people. They spent a lot of time sitting in doors doing nothing and with no one to talk to. There was rarely anyone using the garden when we visited, even on lovely sunny days.

The benefits of being outdoors, interacting with nature and growing your own food are well understood and yet very few care homes enable residents to regularly work in the garden.  We decided to set up weekly gardening clubs for people living with dementia. Activities are specially designed to exercise key muscle groups, provide sensory stimulation, encourage social interaction and promote a sense of purpose and achievement.

We are often given reasons why people living with dementia won’t be able to contribute effectively to a gardening club : The gardeners might wander off, they’ll forget what they did anyway, they might not it do it properly, its too hot/cold/wet/(insert excuse of your choice) outside etc. Our answer to all of this is so what? If a gardener walks away a volunteer walks with them and they enjoy the garden together. A gardener may forget the details of the task but the feeling of satisfaction and relaxation remains long after the activity is complete. Does it matter if we plant the same lettuce 6 times if we laugh and chat and enjoy getting our hands dirty while we do it? If it’s hot we wear hats and work in the shade, if it’s cold we wear our coats and if it’s raining we work in the conservatory.

Our typical gardener is over 80, and faces many day to day challenges such as limited mobility, difficulty hearing and seeing, problems with following instructions or remembering how to perform simple tasks. And yet they are able to take part in all kinds of gardening activity: growing food, creating colourful patio containers and fragrant herb gardens, painting garden furniture or garden related crafts such as wood working or willow weaving.

Of course not everyone is able to dig holes or pull up weeds. Others enjoy more passive involvement such as selecting which flowers to plant or sensory stimulation such as handling gorgeously soft lambs ear (Stachys Byzantina) or enjoying a fresh tomato still warm from the sun.

Our ethos at Growing Support is that being diagnosed with dementia is no reason to stop being able to enjoy the benefits of gardening and the garden. With a little help everyone can contribute and benefit from a thriving growing space.

Community volunteers are key to making this happen. They take an enabling role providing the much needed individual support required to enable everyone to make a meaningful participation and feel a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps most importantly they create a cheerful sociable atmosphere and make sure that even if sometimes we plant our lettuces upside down we all have fun doing it!

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