The benefits of gardening and being in nature have long been intuitively understood. More recently, researchers have brought scientific rigour to what many felt instinctively: that being outside and involved in the growing of plants is good for us, both in body and mind.

In the New South Wales Hunter Valley, a dementia day respite service has conducted a small pilot study into the health and quality-of-life benefits of gardening for people who are living with dementia.

As the researchers expected, the findings were positive. 

The people living with dementia who completed the program reported improved wellbeing, they said they enjoyed the gardening program, and their levels of social engagement increased.

“Overall positive effect”

“The program appeared to have an overall positive effect on those who took part,” Dr Elise Mansfield, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Medicine and Public Health, The University of Newcastle, told HelloCare. 

Carol Twentyman and Kelvin Gillespie. Image supplied.

Jim Rowe and Wendy Hammond. Image supplied.

The people living with dementia seemed to experience improved wellbeing.

“People with dementia reported fewer needs following their participation, suggesting the program may improve wellbeing,” Dr Mansfield said. 

Carers said taking part in the program said it alleviated some of the stress they had been feeling.

“Carers who attended also indicated they enjoyed the program, and some felt that it had helped to relieve stress,” Dr Mansfield said.

All those who took part said they’d like to continue gardening.

“All participants rated the activities as enjoyable overall, and indicated that they would take part in a similar gardening activity,” Dr Mansfield told HelloCare.

And there were also social benefits to the program, as everyone became acquainted while they worked alongside each other.

“Two thirds felt that it helped them to get to know others,” Dr Mansfield said.

The program

“The gardening program involved activities such as assembling raised garden beds, planting herbs, vegetables and flower seedlings, sowing seeds, fertiliser application, soil pH testing, making plant cuttings, harvesting flowers and herbs,” Dr Mansfield told HelloCare. 

Jim Rowe and Wendy Hammond. Image supplied.

Jim Rowe and Wendy Hammond. Image supplied.

The program also included garden-based crafts, such as creating plant-based artworks, decorating pots, and building bird houses. 

People attending the respite care took part in the garden program once a week over six weeks. Both people living with dementia and their carers attended.

The participants living with dementia were interviewed before the program began and after it finished. 

“We used standardised measures to assess wellbeing, and also asked about their perceptions of the benefits of the program,” Dr Mansfield said. 

After the study concluded, the researchers also asked carers about the benefits they observed from the gardening program in both themselves and in their care recipients.

Local horticulturalist came up with the concept

A local horticulturalist, Carol Twentyman, came up with the idea for the study, with the support of  Chris Giles and Jacqui Culver from Anglican Care East Lake Macquarie Dementia Service.

Anglican Care approached Dr Elise Mansfield, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Medicine and Public Health, The University of Newcastle, about conducting the pilot program.

More study in this field is needed

Dr Mansfield told HelloCare more work is required in this area of understanding.

Joe Allan and Bill Adam, Image supplied.

Joe Allan and Bill Adam, Image supplied.

“It should be noted that this was only a small pilot study of 24 people with dementia, with no control group.”

“Therefore the findings require replication with a larger sample and inclusion of a control group to ensure the benefits observed were not due to other factors,” she said.

Range of factors mean gardening improves wellbeing

Gardening requires people to use a range of personal skills and abilities, and exposes them to a number of beneficial influences.

“Spending time in natural settings has been associated with a range of benefits for people of all ages,” Dr Mansfield said. 

“In addition to this, gardening also provides an opportunity for social interaction, physical activity, and building confidence and self-esteem, factors all known to positively impact wellbeing.”

Main image: Kelvin Gillespie and Joy McDermott. Image supplied.

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