In this article, Nicky Roeber, Online Horticultural Expert at Wyevale Garden Centres, takes a closer look at why a garden is a great environment for people with dementia and shares his top tips on creating a dementia-friendly garden that's accessible and sensory.
A garden can be a really special place — somewhere to relax, bring together different generations, interact with nature, and feel more connected to the world. And, for people with dementia, spending time outdoors can be extremely beneficial, so it really is worth adapting your garden to cater to their needs.
What benefits can a dementia-friendly garden offer?
Physically speaking, there are quite a few benefits of gardening for someone with dementia. It can help them to get light exercise and encourage them to use their motor skills, all while ensuring they get a healthy level of exposure to sunlight. Getting them to organise planting and care activities can also help them to practice their cognitive abilities too. Tools specifically designed for elderly will make gardening more accessible.
Your dementia-friendly garden can also be a place of sensory and emotional stimulation. It has the potential to engage the senses, whether that's touching the natural textures, smelling the scent of flowers, or tasting the goodies from a vegetable patch. Gardening can also offer a great opportunity to create and share relationship-boosting "here and now" memories with someone with dementia, something that is enhanced by the calming surroundings and opportunity for co-operative tasks.
How can I make my garden dementia friendly?
Now that we've established how beneficial a garden can be for someone with dementia, here are some top tips for creating the perfect space.
Focus on accessibility
When it comes to designing your dementia-friendly garden, the first thing you need to consider is whether your current space is accessible or not, as the condition is one of the leading causes of disability in later life (Alzheimer's Society). This means that anyone with dementia visiting may not be able to cope with obstacles found in gardens like steps, uneven surfaces, or narrow pathways.
The garden should also be visually accessible, a simple and well-structured layout where people with dementia can have a good overview of the garden, making it apparent where to go and how to use it. Ideally it should be visually and physically accessible from rooms that are used daily, making it a natural extension from the indoors.
Aim to provide easy access to your garden by incorporating paths wide enough for two people walking side by side — this should give enough room for anyone who needs assistance or uses a wheelchair to get around. Choose smooth, well-laid paving stones or decking and ensure any raised levels are accessible via a ramp and handrail. Whatever option is used, it is vital to ensure it does not become slippery when wet. It is also important that there is no high contrast between different surfaces (including from indoors to outdoors) as this can be seen as a level change. Think about including markers or way-finders, such as flower pots or containers, as this can help to guide people which way to go.
Make sure you have seating options, such as a bench or table and chairs, to allow any tired visitors to take a rest. Provide a feature for anyone sitting; something of interest to observe. Any seating should be comfortable to sit in and have back and arm rests to aid standing and sitting. The seating area should provide protection from sun and wind. Any movable chairs should be sturdy, and furniture should have a high contrast to the ground surface to make it more visible.
Turn it into a wildlife haven
The presence of animals and insects around your garden can be a source of comfort to those with dementia, as well as real mood booster, so do everything you can to attract wildlife to your space.
Try adding feeders and birdbaths to entice the local bird population to your garden, and you could even add plants like hawthorns, brambles, and buddleia to attract small animals like hedgehogs to your space. Remember to keep any thorny plants out of reach. A pond can be a sensory water feature to work into your garden, and you can even fill it with fish and build shaded areas to attract frogs for even more wildlife.
You can attract honey-seeking insects, such as bees and butterflies, to your garden by making sure you have plenty of flowers dotted around — shallow blossom species like daisies, zinnia and asters will do the trick.
Make it a sensory wonderland
We've already covered the sensory benefits a dementia-friendly space can offer, so be sure to design your garden with each one in mind. Make your flowerbeds appeal to sight with big and bright species like peonies, then add the likes of geranium, lavender, and rosemary to the mix to ensure that your garden has plenty of pleasant scents. Plants should not overhang paths, so the route is clearly visible and reduces trip hazards. Remember to avoid harmful plants, such as Queen Anne’s lace or hydrangeas, but allow anyone using the garden to touch the plants, or even eat them.
Warm-coloured plants with white, yellow, red or orange hues can be seen well by anyone with a sight impairment. With advanced age the blue and lavender colour range is harder to discern for the eye. This doesn’t mean plants of this range should not be used at all, but they are less distinct to older people.
You can also design your space to be full of soothing sounds that will appeal to hearing. Running water features, wind chimes, and long whispering grasses are all things you can add to create these sounds. Be sure to fill your garden with lots of textures, too, as this will help visitors engage their sense of touch as they explore.
Follow these tips and you will be able to create a fantastic garden for anyone with dementia, giving them a space that they can explore and tend to, that's full of engaging, sensory stimuli. Not only will you be helping them create "now" memories, but you'll be providing essential exercise too.