Therapy Gardens Can Help Seniors Stay Younger Physically & Mentally

Aging bodies often struggle with even basic movement as an everyday fact of life.

Add a debilitating stroke or chronic disease to the wear and tear our bones and supporting tissues have taken over the years and we can easily see why getting around isn’t as easy as it used to be — and why many of our senior loved ones require assistance.

We know the statistics on senior falls are staggering – 1 out of 3 older adults falls, resulting in injury and frequently disability. Falls are also the leading cause of death among older adults.

Addressing the factors that lead to falls and trying to prevent them is rapidly moving front and center as a healthcare initiative.

Early prevention and physical activity can help to prevent, or at least delay, the decline in functional status observed as a result of chronic diseases. The current estimate is that less than 20% of our nation’s seniors get enough physical activity and even fewer participate in strength training activities that could prevent falls.

Therapy Gardens Improve Functional Health of Seniors

We recently heard about an idea which could help many seniors overcome declines that will keep them from aging in place. This new approach will hopefully catch on and be instituted in other areas across the United States to help more seniors.

A therapy garden installed at Windsor Healthcare Communities Merwick home in Plainsboro, NJ recently won a national healthcare landscape architecture award for innovation. This garden was designed to help seniors recover from illness or surgery with the goal of returning home.

Senior gardening is something we’ve discussed in the past for the many benefits it can provide and this example drives home that point.

Features of the Therapy Garden

The therapy garden brings together many different elements into one courtyard, which is why it has been awarded for its innovation. It is at this time the only known therapy garden on the east coast, according to the report. Due to its achievement, two more are being built on two of the companies’ other sites.

Some elements of therapy gardens include these.

  • A large assortment of walking surfaces challenges the seniors to walk without falling and learning to pick up their feet basically re-learning how to walk for many. The idea is that when we walk, we encounter a multitude of surfaces that we must negotiate safely and this gives the seniors practice time in a controlled setting. The surfaces include gravel, bricks, asphalt, mulch, sand and even a boardwalk.
  • Therapy car to the courtyard offers the ability to practice transferring into and out of a vehicle without incident.
  • Steps in and out of a gazebo in the garden is a chance to master steps without tripping. They even provide practice maneuvering the steps when carrying bags simulating a grocery or shopping bag. Even carrying mail up stairs can be tricky to not only get good footing but also grabbing a handrail.
  • A window is set up that allows seniors to practice opening and closing while leaning over a counter. Keeping balance and a steady gait during this procedure is harder than you might think.
  • Fine motor skills are practiced at garden stations in the garden. Picking weeds, planting seeds, scooping dirt and watering from containers are fun activities with a purpose.
  • In the therapy garden is even a putting green that builds muscle and requires the senior to manage the turf too!
  • The therapy garden was built to allow socialization for the seniors rebuilding skills as well as the nursing home population who enjoy the flowers, shrubs and shade trees too.

Benefits of Gardens for Seniors

The time has come, some may say is overdue, when nursing homes have outside spaces that are safe and peaceful for the residents who live there. Aging seniors, especially those in a senior living facility, often spend their remaining years inside the four walls of the facility. Many don’t travel outside into the community often, if at all, and some don’t even go outside to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.

The reality is that many nursing homes either have no outdoor space that is accessible to the seniors who reside in the facility or don’t have ample staff to take seniors out and stay with them while they do enjoy the outdoors.

Gardening has beneficial effects for our seniors as does getting out into the fresh air. Gardening spaces can be modified so that those in wheelchairs find them accessible to lend a hand in the work.

  • Growing vegetables or fruits can be productive, not only as a source of nourishment but also providing a sense of accomplishment and purpose for seniors. That is especially true when they get to eat the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.
  • Gardening, especially when it was something that the seniors did when they were younger, can give them an opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise. It can stimulate their thinking and memory skills as they pass their talents on to someone else.
  • Provides physical activity and beneficial exercise. It can help improve mobility, balance and flexibility.
  • Sitting and enjoying the garden, whether they ever lift a hand to help, can be a calming experience for many. Those with dementia can obtain a level of relaxation listening to the birds and enjoying the sun on their face. Gardening can be a stress reliever.
  • A study in Norway showed that participating in a garden on a consistent basis can reduce depression.
  • It can provide an avenue for socialization. Seniors can share stories with one another about their life experience with gardening, travel and the shared love of the outdoors with others in their congregate community. Socialization equals stimulation which is a positive health benefit.
  • A garden is a wonderful activity that multiple generations can share. Kids, adults and seniors can work together toward a common goal not to mention just enjoy being together.
  • “Wander” or “memory” gardens for those with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems allow them to walk through without getting lost. This has been found to be therapeutic for those with dementia.

Precautions for Gardening with Seniors

Because aging can increase the likelihood for certain specific issues, it is important to remember a few precautions before we take seniors out to the garden.

  • Use sunscreen to protect their fragile skin (that holds true for family caregivers who join them, too).
  • Wear sunglasses and wide brim hats to keep sun off faces, eyes and ears.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated in the heat of the sun.
  • Be aware of medication that can increase sun sensitivity. If your senior is taking a medication that may be photosensitive, keep them covered or in the shade or slathered with sunscreen. When in doubt, ask their doctor or pharmacist.
  • Raise the gardening beds so that they can easily reach the plants to help out.
  • Maintain garden paths for use of wheelchairs or to prevent falling over obstacles while strolling.
  • Have a fence or gate so that you can prevent any wandering if you have seniors who might walk off if unattended.

A therapy garden and even a memory garden are fabulous ideas and great additions to facilities that house our seniors.

As they age in place, encouraging senior loved ones to stay active and spend time outdoors will help keep them fit physically and mentally. Seniors who are not at home deserve the same opportunity to partake in the outdoors on a regular basis, not just once a year.

We applaud those facilities that are installing gardens in their locations. Does your senior have a garden to enjoy?