Dementia is a global health problem, with more than seven million new cases diagnosed each year – Australia has 1700 a week. Experts are on the hunt for drug-free ways to promote relaxation in sufferers and they may have discovered a solution in the garden. A recent study from the University of Exeter in the UK has found that outdoor spaces can provide an environment that reduces agitation among dementia patients in aged care.
Creating your own dementia-friendly space at home doesn’t have to be difficult. Whether you’re starting from scratch or just want to rework an existing garden, here’s what you need to know.
Make it easy to understand
Dr Malgosia Zlobicki, a gerontologist at the Queensland University of Technology, whose area of expertise is in design for ageing, advises that you keep your design simple, and says “the environment must be clear and must be legible”.
Think of the elements in your garden as prompts for someone to do something. For example, if you want a person to be able to enjoy sitting in the garden, it’s as obvious as having a comfortable bench which is set in a location that’s easy to access.
For an existing garden: Rework anything that’s unclear. If you want someone to be able to touch and smell the plants, keep them within easy reach as opposed to having them fenced off.
Make it easy to explore
People with dementia can easily become disoriented, so it’s important to make any paths within your garden very clear. Garden designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin, who’s created a dementia-friendly green space for theAustralian Garden Show Sydney this week, says, “Have a circular route with no dead ends and no places where people have to make decisions about needing to go left or right because that can confuse someone with dementia.”
If you want to pave pathways, it’s important to choose only one form of material to allow it to flow. Fisher Tomlin says that having points in the path where it changes can become confusing to someone who has to make a choice about whether to cross the line between the two.
For an existing garden: Assess any paths and see how you can minimise dead ends or places where decisions have to be made about what route to take.
Andrew Fisher Tomlin’s dementia-friendly garden design
Choose plants that are familiar
The sight, smell and touch of plants can be a great way to stimulate memory for someone with dementia. When choosing plants, try to pick those that will be familiar to the person. “Think about what sort of plants they would relate to because they’ve had them in their garden all their life,” Fisher Tomlin says.
For an existing garden: Take stock of your plants and see what you can introduce that will have a sense of familiarity.
Bring elements of their personality into the garden
When introducing decorative elements such as statues or ornaments to your green space, think beyond just aesthetics. Choose items that will be meaningful to the person, in order to help stimulate their senses, Fisher Tomlin says. If they loved spending time at the beach, you could adopt a coastal theme throughout your design.
For an existing garden: Use items the person already has around their home or may have encountered on holidays in order to provide memoryprompts.
Being out in the garden allows a dementia sufferer to be active and also gives them the opportunity to do meaningful activities at home. Zlobicki says this fulfilling time spent outdoors can often have a flow-on effect and dementia patients may even become easier to care for.
Fisher Tomlin suggests getting someone involved in the garden by planting raised beds to which they can tend while they’re spending time outside.
For an existing garden: Tailor the activity to the individual. If they always preferred planting produce rather than flowers in their own garden, then have a vegie patch for them to look after as opposed to blooms.
Tips for assisted living facilities
Create a garden in a small space
- Have familiar plants on a patio or balcony. This can be from a person’s garden or simply plants they love.
- Encourage activity by supplying gardening tools.
- Bringing in elements from the person’s home provides a sense of connection to a familiar space.
Safety in the garden
- Ensure paths are non-slip and level.
- Install railings to hang on to for ease of mobility.
- Have lighting put in if time will be spent in the garden at night.
- All plants should be non-toxic, so they’re safe to touch or taste.
- Ensure furniture doesn’t have any rough or sharp edges.