All in the mind: Gardening can help keep your brain healthier

The mental and social aspects of the past-time are as important as the physical, says Fiann Ó Nuallain.

This is Bloom weekend and as usual another spectacular show is unfolding, full of great gardens as well as their tagline of flowers, fun, family and food — I know — what the f with all the fs.

Paul Gore, 11, and Lee Weldon, 9, who attend Phoenix Park Specialist School, in ‘The Sanctuary Nurture Garden’ designed for children with specialist educational needs. The garden will be transferred to Phoenix Park Specialist School after the Bloom Festival and will offer the children a safe outdoor learning space.

And for those of us who turn up for the gardens, there are a couple that will excite your senses, exploit your heartstrings, prick your conscience, educate your health, wow your creative brain and delight your horticultural expectations.

One in particular that caught my eye and something close to my heart was the dementia garden, ‘Moments in time’, not just for raising awareness of the condition but highlighting how gardening is good for the mind.

We have heard so much about dementia in recent years that we would be forgiven for thinking that it’s a natural part of ageing. Well, it isn’t.

In fact, nine out of 10 people over 65 do not have dementia — and as I’ve been saying for years — a spot of gardening is not only therapeutic, but via its physical, mental and social agency, can keep the brain healthier for longer.

The Dementia-friendly Garden is collaboration between Newtown Saunders Ltd who are supported by Enterprise Ireland to develop dementia-friendly garden concepts.

TrinityHaus (Trinity College Dublin Research Centre) is also involved in exploring a range of age-friendly and dementia-friendly projects in the domestic, healthcare and urban design setting, and Sonas, which provides a range of training, resources and supports for those with dementia. So it’s on the money with design and functionality.

I am a fan of Sonas, they focus on psycho-social approaches and interventions that enhance quality of life for those with dementia, but also for their carers.

Sonas reminded me that there are over 180,000 people in Ireland that are either currently, or have been, carers for a family member or partner with dementia. Sonas continually explore new ways to upskill care partners and enrich the lives of all on the dementia journey.

Highlighting the cause at Bloom is always a great way to reach people, but creating a garden is, in itself, another solution because is encourages us to stay motivated and active — to have respite from illness or the pressures of caring. It’s a reason to pause at the garden and pick up some self-care advice.

You know me — the garden is prayer and a doctor and yes —I’ve singled this one out because its right up my street — and because it’s a damn pretty garden too. The best of both worlds — and what Bloom does so well.

The concept behind ‘Moments in time — The Dementia Understand Together Garden’ is to explore a garden space for people who are on the dementia journey, to help people experience togetherness and understanding with others.

It does this by providing a well-designed and aesthetic space “that provides a gentle multi-sensory and embodied experience aimed at slowly grounding the person in the here and now”.

The walkway through the garden moves through a number of zones, each with distinct planting and to me, reflective of a journey and of change and adaptation to change.

Each zone is filled with a series of photographs depicting some faces of dementia and different facets of people’s lives.

The journey of the path takes us towards a central seating area where there is room for more than one — reflecting that shared understanding and togetherness is not just the core of the Understand Together campaign — but the support required for sufferers and cares alike.

There are 55,000 people in Ireland currently living with dementia and two-thirds are women while one in 10 people diagnosed with dementia are under 65.

Eoin Marks 8, Anthony McCabe 6, Lee Weldon 9, Megan Infangir 9, and Paul Gore 11, who attend Phoenix Park Specialist School pictured with Dominic O’Donoghue from Sanctuary Synthetics.

But there are lifestyle changes to limit your potential of developing it; healthy eating and healthy past-times. The great thing that the garden expresses is that a diagnosis of dementia doesn’t mean the end of doing the things you love and enjoy.

You can continue gardening and spending time outdoors absorbing the health rewards of staying active and engaged. I don’t want to give the whole plot away and I recommend you go see it for yourself — there are 3 whole days left — but if you can’t then do check out dementia friendly gardening tips here or follow the tips below.

Professor Brian Lawlor, Consultant Psychiatrist and chair of the Dementia: Understand Together campaign, says of the dementia-friendly garden that “it willinspire people to take on some ideas for their own garden spaces.

“We know that getting out and about is crucial for our health and well-being. It gives us fresh air and daylight, it combines physical exercise with mental stimulation and as any gardener will tell you, a garden doesn’t mind itself, and so it helps to keep us occupied and maintain a sense of independence too.”

Top Tips for a Dementia-friendly Garden:

Garden Layout: Try to ensure that your garden is easy to access, has a straightforward layout and is easy to get around, and can be seen from inside your home.

Paths and patios should be level, non-slip and a single colour. Provide handrails for ease of mobility, and include accessible features such as raised planters.

Planting: Choose plants that stir the senses with vibrant colours and beautiful scents. Think about using plants that are interesting to touch, are well-known and stimulate fond memories.

We recommend: Hydrangea; Pinks/carnations; Lavender; Japanese maple; Ox eye daisy.n Familiar features: Make the garden personal and include items in the garden that link with the person’s past, eg a vegetable patch, familiar plants, a bird table and a milk churn.

Opportunity to relax: Provide shelter and seating in the garden to sit back, take it all in and enjoy time out with family and friends. It might be helpful if seating is located where you can see back to your house and to family and friends inside.

Easy to potter: Have tools and equipment nearby, visible and easy to use. This will support gardening activities which can be hugely therapeutic and afford excellent opportunities to reminisce.


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