Why have a garden for people with dementia?
The belief that a garden is a source of pleasure and a place for relaxation and meditation has been a part of our culture for many centuries. Gertrude Jekyll commented: “The first purpose of a garden is to be a place of quiet beauty such as will give delight to the eye and refreshment to the mind.” A garden therefore serves to promote the activity and health of body, mind and spirit.
These benefits seem to be increasingly appreciated with age, and it should be no surprise that they have been established for people with dementia. The most obvious benefit of a garden or other open space is the provision of multi-sensory stimulation, a fact reflected in the development of sensory gardens. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are all involved The enjoyment of gardens and gardening has been described as a ‘soft fascination’: the activity draws us with a fascination that does not require work in the sense of having to push ourselves to be involved, and yet is not so all-consuming that our minds are completely taken over.
Is gardening and are gardens of value to everyone or only to those who enjoy them? There is no clear answer, but many consider that we are all responsive when given the opportunity or encouragement to be involved. However, just as not all adults are attracted to gardening, it should not be a surprise if some people with dementia do not respond immediately to this activity.
In addition to enjoyment and the associated experience of ‘feeling better’ when involved with a garden, it seems that behaviour patterns of people with dementia improve. Various studies have shown that the tendency to violent incidents, pacing, incontinence and trespassing are all reduced. These reversals of the effects of the disease are termed ‘rementia’. In addition, there is evidence that those who garden (or travel, carry out odd jobs or knit) are less likely to develop dementia than those who do not take part in these activities The adage ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’ applies here. The mechanism is not clear, but it appears that these complex activities may stimulate cognitive functions and thereby protect them. Part of the role of gardening may be the acceptance of responsibility and the encouragement to continue to make decisions, which is another example of cognitive activity.