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Gardening and people living with dementia

With the worst of winter (hopefully) behind us, it’s time to think about gardening and all the benefits gardens and horticulture therapy can bring for people living with dementia.

Home gardens are an iconic part of Australian culture. And, since lock-down and other restrictions brought about by the pandemic, Australians are investing more time and money into their private gardens. For those living in apartments or with limited outdoor space, balcony and indoor gardening has become more popular, with indoor hydroponic kits, terrariums, herb gardens and “living walls”.

Gardening can bring a range of benefits for people living with dementia, including improved memory, attention, social interaction, reduced stress and increased feelings of calm and relaxation.

Physical benefits of gardening

Gardening is considered one of the main forms of exercise for older Australians. Gardening helps us practice a range of physical skills including walking, reaching, bending, pulling, digging, raking, pruning and more. It can improve endurance and strength as well as mobility, flexibility, and balance.

Other physical benefits of garden environments and gardening include:

  • reduces stress and lowers blood pressure
  • helps maintain circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle)
  • the natural absorption of vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight, which is important for maintaining strong bones.


Therapeutic benefits of gardening

Gardening provides stimulation and interest in the outdoors. It is an important, meaningful activity, that creates a sense of purpose, learning, discovery and fun.

Studies have found gardening has a wide range of benefits including:

  • reduced feelings of agitation
  • improved attention, memory and cognition
  • gaining new skills/regain lost skills
  • increased stimulation and interest in nature and the outdoors
  • improved sense of responsibility/sense of accomplishment
  • improved self-esteem and sense of wellbeing.

Gardening also lends itself to social interaction where people can meet, develop friendships and share their love of plants, the environment and being outdoors. Gardening as a family or in intergenerational settings provides opportunity for older adults to share skills and knowledge with children and young people.

Social gardening can provide a sense of belonging and acceptance for those who may otherwise feel socially isolated. Gardening groups and clubs can provide supportive environments that promote social inclusion of older people, people with disabilities, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. A great example of this is the DIGnity Supported Therapeutic Gardening Program that operates from two community gardens in southeast Tasmania.

For people with dementia, gardening can provide a form of social interaction without needing to engage in traditional forms of communication. You can encourage your local gardening group or club to become more socially inclusive and dementia friendly, by directing them to the Dementia Australia website: Dementia Friendly.


Get involved in gardening!

Consider joining one of these garden-oriented group or clubs:

  • Garden Clubs of Australia provides a range of services to its members (affiliated clubs) and currently has over 780 affiliated clubs representing more than 52,000 individuals. Their motto is: “Friendship Through Gardens.”
  • Bushcare and Landcare volunteering – these groups are usually part of a local council or National Parks & Wildlife Service program. They are often provided with assistance in the way of qualified and experienced supervision, tools, training, etc.
  • Community Gardens Australia are a networking organisation connecting community gardeners around Australia. They can help you connect with, or even establish your own, local community garden and provide advice about what plants you can grow including fruits, herbs and vegetables.


Therapeutic garden design

Therapeutic garden design focuses on increasing sensory stimulation for people with dementia living at home or in residential or assisted care facilities. Therapeutic gardens often include plants with a stimulating appearance, feel and smell. Plants and trees provide shade and seasonal variation, and a place for sitting, relaxing, socialising and, (of course!) gardening.

Some therapeutic gardens include raised planters where people with dementia can use their hands or simple safe tools for digging and other activities. Planting food, such as fruit, vegetables and herbs, increases the sensory experiences, provides meaningful activity and also promotes nutritional learning and healthy eating.

The Dementia Enabling Environments website provides a range of resources and garden design principles for home gardens and care facilities. Important principles include having visual cues so that garden users gain a sense of control and self-confidence. Also ensuring all potential safety issues are addressed in the garden planning process and removing physical and mental barriers to enhance garden accessibility. For more information, download the Dementia Australia document: “Gardens that Care: Planning Outdoor Environments for People with Dementia”.

Check out the Dementia Australia Dementia Friendly Garden in Port Macquarie via this video on YouTube.


More ways to enjoy gardens, plants and green space

  • Go for a walk in a garden on your own, with your dog, or with a friend
  • Create your own small pot garden or larger vegetable garden
  • Decorate plastic or terracotta pots for planting
  • Pick and arrange flowers to display about your house or gift to others
  • Collect plant seeds and learn how to harvest and sow them
  • Experience the joy and satisfaction of harvesting, cooking and eating produce from the garden
  • Support a friend or neighbour by helping them maintain their garden
  • Volunteer – for example, in a school or public garden.

For more information on this website

Consider the following articles on keeping physically, mentally and socially active: