We all know how being outside in fresh air can lift our spirits; working with nature, planting fruit, vegetables and flowers or just sitting in the garden with a cup of tea can bring a smile to our faces, helping us relax after a difficult day. Working in a garden or allotment space can allow us to escape from the mundanity and stress of our busy lives. They give us a real sense of achievement when we pick those strawberries and beans and occasionally a sense of frustration when the cabbages are eaten again!

The Positive Impact of Gardening on People Living with Dementia

For those who live with dementia, gardening equally can be a real source of joy and achievement. Maintaining physical activity, cognitive function and social interaction all help someone who has dementia to remain stimulated, and feel valued and helpful. However, accessing gardens and allotments can become more challenging as dementia progresses. For many years, working in care homes and community gardens Alive has seen the real value of connecting with the natural world can have for people living with dementia. We’ve seen people open up through the help of gardening. From struggling with communication to being able to tell us fluently how best to plant tomatoes; from being socially isolated and withdrawn to having friends and being part of a group.

Organising Gardening Activities in Care Homes

In care homes, very often the idea of gardening with people living in dementia in can be overlooked.  It can be seen to be too messy, only suitable for summer months or too complicated to run an organised session. However the advantages far out way the challenges.

What is Needed to Run the Sessions?

  • Volunteers – To provide support for staff 
  • Resources – You have to prepare for the sessions. 
  • Structure – A plan is required

However, from the sessions we have run, for many, gardening is the session some residents look forward to the most.  Some participants will simply spend an hour playing with soil.  They might not plant or prune, but they connect with something real and sensory.  For some, they will tell of their gardens, award-winning fruit and veg and show you how to garden.  Others will simply water the plants.  For all, it is a purpose, an occupation and a joy. It will spark memories, stories and emotions that might not have been shared previously. One lady once told me “I’m so pleased I can do this today. My husband was the gardener you see. I wasn’t allowed near his flowers in case I did something wrong. He was so talented, but I’d always wanted to do it”.

The Role of Gardening in Care at Alive

As a charity, we’ve recently started developing our own space for people living with dementia. We have been facilitating regular gardening sessions and groups in care settings and witnessing the joy and satisfaction gardening brings to so many older people on a daily basis.  However for care staff, this can be challenging to maintain the plants once we have left, so we wanted to provide a space not only for people living in the community to come and benefit from but also for care home residents and staff to visit away from their home. The garden provides a haven of peace and support they can visit.  We recognised this was a real opportunity but also a huge task.

Setting up the Allotment

We were handed the keys to our allotment in March 2020, just days before the country was plunged into lockdown. The plot in Brentry in Bristol hadn’t been worked on for about 4 years. The ground was uneven and unloved and some allotment plot holders even felt it was unworkable! However, my incredible team of volunteers and staff worked through lockdown and put hours of unpaid hard work and love into its development to make our idea a reality.

The design of the plot was achieved through consultation with local dementia support groups to ensure it met the required needs of the space.  Keeping older people at the heart of what we do is essential, so it was important it was planned together.  So with designs in hand, in January of 2021, the hard work of landscaping started as we set about turning the space first into a building site, then into a safe, secure, user-friendly, engaging and stimulating space for the participants we were soon to welcome through the gates. It was a real community effort, with support from local funders, businesses and fellow allotment plot holders, who all supported us in our vision to enable those affected by dementia to still have access to nature and feel that sense of achievement and purpose.  Crowdfunding for a compost loo was one of my particular highlights!  Developing through covid was equally challenging.  With a lack of resources, covid restrictions, and funding challenges, it was a battle but we knew if we could achieve our aim so many older people would benefit.  

Bristol’s Mayor, Marvyn Rees officially opened the allotment in August 2021 and the site has been a regular feature on local and national media since. Our highlight was being featured on Gardeners World in October 2022.   

The Benefits of the Allotment for People Living with Dementia

For the last twelve months since the opening, we’ve been running regular support sessions, attended by people living with dementia and their carers.  Participants can choose what they do, they can come and potter,  work with a volunteer, or just sit and have a cup of tea and chat. It is now a fully accessible space, with sheds, shelter, raised beds, safe paths and a sense of quiet and seclusion. We’ve noticed that it serves different purposes for different people. But without exception, the overall experience for everyone – be they the participant themselves, the person who attends with them or our volunteers – appears to be incredibly positive.

For some of the people who attend our sessions, the benefits we observe are dramatic. Some people experience instantaneous mood changes, some physical changes, and some emotional changes but all visibly relax when they’re outside in the garden with nature. For a few of our participants, these changes are more marked than for others. 

One of our attendees, John, had an allotment in Bristol for 20 years. Eventually, his dementia advanced to the point where he couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. An allotment is a huge commitment and labour of love, so this isn’t surprising.   John was soon a regular at the Alive allotment sessions, accompanied by his wife. He instantly became a hit with everyone, always with a smile on his face and a wealth of knowledge about gardening and growing your own, which he took pleasure in sharing. He was keen to help us plant things and just as eager to help others with their endeavours. He seemed to be in his element. His wife commented how it was like “having the old John back” when they were up there.  Quite often people living with dementia experience a sense of loss of control in their lives. Someone else might be cooking for them, feeding them, helping them get dressed, and organising their lives. Being at the allotment gives people a chance to decide what they want to do and then do it. This has definitely been the case for John.

For another participant, we’ve seen marked physical changes. Following a 3 week’s stay in hospital, he struggled at home, but within minutes of arriving at the allotment he’d abandoned his stick and was exploring every inch, watering can in hand. It was the first time his partner had seen him walking without a stick for a long time.  A few days later, he was even dancing with his partner.  “You got him moving again. That’s the difference it makes.  What you do is give people hope.”

The Impact of the Allotment

The allotment has become a haven for many, where they can be outside, spend time, reconnect and be with others who understand.  Monty Don on Gardeners World said, “I loved seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter, it clearly is a happy place”.  One of our carers said to us “It’s just like being with family, we can come as we are.  We just love coming.” 

Whether you look after people in care homes or in the community, it is clear that gardening can bring untold benefits for people living with dementia.  Bringing back memories, creating new ones; bringing purpose and occupation; maintaining physical activity and cognitive stimulation.  All essential for anyone with dementia to live well.    In the words of one of our service users, “Gardening, it’s almost medical. They need things like this to keep people going.” We couldn’t agree more. 

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An estimated 944,000 people are living with dementia in the UK. Isobel Jones, CEO of Alive discusses the positive impacts of garden therapy for those living with dementia. She also shares how they set up the allotment and the overall benefits of it on the wider care home community.

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