Many of us are going to be spending more time in our gardens this spring than ever before. Our gardens may be the safest place for us to spend time out of doors, so what can be done to make your home garden more dementia friendly? The DSDC has compiled a basic list of hints and tips to make your garden more accessible and enjoyable this summer.
Though gardens are not interior spaces, they can still be vital living spaces when a person is at home. The garden provides opportunities to engage with nature when one is outdoors, and also when one is inside the house.
Dementia friendly design principles are often talked about in relation to the built environment, but many of those same principles can be used to make outdoor space more accessible, more engaging and encourage higher levels of physical activity. The following are some top tips for making the garden more dementia friendly.
1 Make it barrier free
One of the reasons gardens do not get used by older people is that access is difficult or impossible. Steep stairs or very uneven or uncared for surfaces present safety hazards to an individual who may have vision or depth perception issues, or balance and mobility changes. While solving access issues isn’t always cheap, it is essential when encouraging an individual to spend time out of doors. This matters because direct sunlight on our skin is responsible for most of our vitamin D production, which helps to maintain our mental wellbeing and our bone density, and is evidenced to improve mobility. Sunlight also helps to regulate our circadian rhythms which control our body clocks and keep our sleep and wake cycles on schedule, something that is often negatively impacted by changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
2 Transitional spaces
As people age their eyes have difficulty transitioning when going between light and dark spaces, which can contribute to falls. Often the transition between outdoor and indoor space requires significant visual adjustment. In order to provide a space and time for eyes to adjust to a new light level, having a transitional space can often be helpful, such as a seat just inside or just outside the door. This will also provide a space for putting on shoes and outerwear while making the light level transition more gradual.
3 Safety aids
A handrail along a path may serve as a steadying presence and an encouragement to walk. If a handrail is not needed or beneficial, there may be locations where a grab rail may be particularly welcome (for helping to rise from a seating area, or at a door or transitional space). Non-slip materials should be used on any patio or hard walking paths to reduce the risk of slips and falls in inclement weather.
4 Level walking path
Whether large or small a garden space is unlikely to see much use unless it has a safe walking path. This does not mean the path needs to be tarmacked or even paved, but having a maintained, even path can encourage more activity throughout the garden. If you are putting in paving, remember to try to maintain the same colour throughout the paving to minimise visual illusions for individuals with perception issues. Using paving material that contrasts with the grass or rocks on either side will help to define the boundaries of the path.
5 Good seating
Having a space outdoors where someone can sit and enjoy the sun on their face or listen to the birds is very important, especially for someone who may fatigue easily, or who likes be outside for long periods. Ideally having a seat in a sunny space and one that is sheltered is ideal. The seating should be robust, preferably with arms to assist with body positioning and rising. Also, having a seat that contrasts with the ground is helpful to eye when identifying potential seating areas.
6 Year round interest
The garden should have some plantings chosen for their provision of year round interest. While the weather may not always support daily use of the garden in the winter, if there is something that provides a bit of colour or visual interest it can invite more regular use of the garden during the cooler times of the year. Having a throw quilt near the door can also encourage more use of the garden by protecting the person from unwanted draughts.
7 Sensory elements
When creating a garden space that is inviting, one of the elements to consider is the sensory experiences. Year round visual interest, auditory input (if enjoyed) such as wind chimes, plants that provide interesting fragrances, like lavender or rosemary, and plants with a variety of textures. Gardens can also be an important place for reminiscing, so consideration should be made of plants that the individual may have cultivated throughout their life or which hold special meaning to the individual.
8 Non-toxic plants
In addition to plantings that provide year round interest, and sensory pleasure, plantings that are non-toxic are recommended. This is primarily a concern for people in more advanced stages of dementia, but anyone can mistake an edible plant for one that is visually similar when foraging. The act of foraging can in itself be pleasurable and tap into memories of past seasons spent picking berries or growing herbs and vegetables. If foraging is a common activity for the individual in their garden, then plantings that are non-toxic are especially important.
9 Meaningful Activity
Think about how that individual has used their garden space in the past. What activity have they used it for? Where they a keen gardener? Did they like to feed and watch the birds? Did they enjoy dining outdoors? Even hanging laundry out to dry has benefit from both an exercise and independence angle. Encouraging engagement with lifelong tasks, hobbies and interests is important to do in both indoor and outdoor space.
10 Make the most of views
When arranging the plantings and the garden furniture think about how best to take advantage of the vistas. Being able to look at pleasurable views is good for wellbeing, but even if views are busy and urban, consider how that might be incorporated into a matter of interest. Can you see coming and going from nearby shops, or see the school drop offs and pick-ups. Everyone is unique in what interests and engages them. Pay attention to what matters to the individual when utilising garden spaces. This year, more than ever, we need to make the most of our gardens and the emotional boost they can provide!