Dementia is a wide-spread disease and is the single greatest cause of disability and death in the over 65 age bracket. It is defined as a loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with normal activities of daily living, lasting more than six months, not present since birth, and not associated with a loss or alteration of consciousness.
The symptoms of dementia worsen over time at a speed that varies across individuals. Some of the more debilitating characteristics of the disease include memory loss; difficulty with planning, solving problems and completing familiar tasks; confusion with time or place; changes in mood; decreased judgement; difficulties with writing and/or speaking; and social withdrawal.
Whilst there is no current cure for the disease, prevention and reducing the rate of progression of the disease must be our primary focus. With this in mind, recent research implications of this study are clear: physical activity can reduce both the risks of contracting Alzheimer’s disease and also slow the symptoms and progression of the disease in those who have already contracted it.
Whilst most or all physical activities such as walking, dancing or gardening could be beneficial, there are many reasons that make gardening preferable for dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Research has found that daily gardening was the single biggest risk-reduction activity that the participants could take against dementia. This study found that the risk of Alzheimer’s was reduced by 36%. Still further, another study reported a risk reduction of 47%. The reasons behind the particular success of gardening in causing this risk reduction are as yet unclear, however, it is likely that this very positive impact on brain health is the result of a mixture of things achieved in the act of gardening, such as learning, dexterity and sensory awareness. If sensory awareness is indeed a key feature of this crucial health benefit, then it stands to reason that sensory gardens and the invigorating and stimulating interaction with nature that is the focus of these spaces could help to achieve these spectacular results.
Gardening is also an excellent choice of regular activity for those in older age brackets and those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s because it is still a very valuable type of aerobic exercise and doesn’t put as much stress on the joints as jogging or weightlifting, for example. Sensory gardens are also of particular value for dementia sufferers as they can offer stimulation directly related to memory retention and social interaction.
Stimulating reminiscence in dementia patients can be a wonderful way to help maintain mental acuity. When designing a sensory garden, particularly for dementia patients, it is important to get the balance right. Sensory stimulation can be a very positive way for dementia sufferers to really enjoy nature and the outdoor spaces you create, whilst for other patients, too much sensory stimulation can lead to sensory overload and distress.
For a list of plant suggestions for reminiscence and seasonal change, please see our plant lists provided in our resource ‘Design Principles for Sensory Gardens’ (coming soon).
For more information regarding design principles and ways of catering to the therapeutic needs of individuals and groups with dementia, please see our resource, ‘Design Principles for Therapeutic Gardens for Dementia’ (coming soon).