Gardening Soothes the Soul

By Michelle Porter Tiernan

Working in a garden can make you feel like a kid again. Feeling the sun on your face, digging your hands in the dirt, and watching with wonder as plants blossom and bear fruit can evoke warm childhood memories. As an adult caregiver, sharing these simple joys can lighten your heart and provide physical and mental benefits to both you and the person for whom you’re providing care.

“Gardening is beneficial for people of all ages,” says Justin Cave, host of the new Home & Garden Television (HGTV) show ‘Ground Breakers’. “A vegetable garden is a great way to get physical activity, and it can add nutrition to your routine.”

Garden tasks are simple, repetitive chores that relieve stress and provide a sense of accomplishment. Just try pulling some weeds or picking the first tomato of the season, still warm from the sun, and you’ll understand why gardening can be so rewarding. Scientists suggest that the mental and physical stimulation produced by activities like gardening might stimulate production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes recent memories.

Grow Some Muscle
Gardening provides a great workout. Digging, raking, and hoeing stretch and strengthen muscles. Working in a garden is an excellent form of exercise for elderly adults and actually may help many people with dementia feel better, both physically and emotionally. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercising as little as 20 minutes, three times a week provides a boost in mood, a decreased risk of falls, reduced wandering, and delayed nursing home placement for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

As a caregiver, you may view gardening as too labor-intensive, but working with nature does not necessarily mean a lot of time or extra work. Caring for a garden can be as ambitious as growing a variety of vegetables in your backyard to simply planting a small container of herbs on your windowsill.

Whether growing a garden indoors or outside, Cave recommends easy gardening jobs to get a person with dementia involved, such as pulling weeds, deadheading flowers, watering plants, and picking vegetables. Although some chores, like pruning shrubs or trees, may be too difficult for an adult with Alzheimer’s, there are many simple tasks that anyone can do, like collecting coffee grounds and eggshells to start a compost pile.

If you have a yard, raking leaves or sweeping grass clippings off the sidewalk can provide a sense of accomplishment for a person with dementia. “It can be something as simple as going out in the yard and filling the bird feeder,” Cave says.

A person with Alzheimer’s who may not be able to participate in gardening tasks can still enjoy the experience of being around plants and trees while you work, says Cave. “Push the wheelchair outside in nature so you can talk to your loved one while working.”

Revive Your Senses

Working outside in the wind and sun with the sounds of insects and birds and the smell of grass and blooming flowers is a refreshing change and mental release for anyone who spends a majority of time indoors. Just smelling a fragrant herb or seeing a brilliant flower can spark conversation and coax a smile.

Cave says spending more time outside is helpful not just for adults trying to preserve memory, but for people of all ages. Gardening is a sensory experience, from feeling a summer breeze on your cheek to gathering colorful vegetables. The smell of freshly mown grass or the chirping of birds can bring back warm memories of the past, even for people with dementia. Most of us recall helping or watching our parents nurture house plants, grow a vegetable garden, or work in the yard when we were young.

Cave’s grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago, and he recalls how much his grandfather enjoyed working with nature. “He used to have a vegetable garden,” Cave says reflectively of his grandfather. “He seeded the garden, which is the old-timer’s way.”

Keep it Simple
You may not have the time or energy to cultivate a full-size vegetable garden, but you and your loved one can still reap the rewards of gardening. Container gardens, planted indoors or outside on a deck, porch, or patio, are an easy option. Pots of small vegetables, flowers or herbs are versatile and simple to maintain.

A sunny kitchen windowsill is the perfect spot for an herb garden. Grow your own rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, and sage, either individually in their own terra cotta pots or together in one long window box.

Vegetable and herb essentials for favorite recipes can be planted in one container and placed outside on a back porch for convenient gardening that only requires stepping outside the door. Oregano, basil, red peppers, and onions can be planted together for pizza lovers, while a container garden of onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and chili peppers provide all of the ingredients for making spicy, homemade salsa.

Whether your container garden is indoors or outside, the key to choosing the right container is to make sure it has good drainage holes, recommends HGTV. Adequate drainage from watering prevents the plant’s roots from constantly sitting in water, which can rot the root and kill the plant. The container also should be at least 10 inches deep for vegetables or perennials.

Your container garden also should have adequate sunlight. For example, leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce do well with more shade, while vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes need much more sun. Cave says all indoor container gardens should be located near a window exposed to at least four to five hours of sun each day.

Cave suggests purchasing flats of flowers and plants for “instant gratification,” rather than starting plants from seed. Pots can become heavy once the potting soil and plants are in place, so sit larger container gardens on a plant caddy—a caster on wheels—to make them easier to move.

Enjoy the Show
“At the heart of gardening there is a belief in the miraculous,” writes English author and gardener Mirabel Osler. Gardening brings joy into our lives, from the anticipation of waiting for the roses to bloom to discovering a ripe melon hiding beneath a cover of vines and leaves.

Working in a garden offers a bounty of benefits for both caregivers and loved ones with Alzheimer’s, including stress relief, exercise, and simply the pride from growing and harvesting your own herbs and vegetables. Plus, it’s always rewarding to share a basket of extra tomatoes, fresh basil, or green peppers with your family and neighbors.

Can’t you just smell the rich, loamy scent of the earth as you dig your hands into the dirt? Cultivating a garden is satisfying work, from planting, watering and weeding to simply stepping back and enjoying nature’s show, for both Alzheimer’s sufferers and caregivers alike.

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Michelle Porter Tiernan, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Summer 2008.