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Healing Power of a Sensory Garden for Aging Adults

Gardening is a hobby that many people take up because it’s an activity that can be enjoyed at all ages. When we’re young, we get excited watering the plants and watching them spring to life from the ground. As adults, we’re able to show off our design sense and style by planning beautiful gardens that match our personalities. Aging adults get not only the aesthetic joy of gardening, but also the stress-busting and strength-building benefits. And for those with a form of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, gardens can be an incredibly useful tool in building meaningful moments and finding purpose. 

“Gardening builds core strength and flexibility, but it also provides a sense of accomplishment to create something from practically nothing,” says Beth Covault, Executive Director of Azpira Place® of Breton, a senior living community in Kentwood, MI. “Gardening plays an important role in the life of our residents, whether they live in Assisted Living or Memory Support. In the springtime, team members and residents plan and plant vegetables and herbs, and throughout the summer they grow and harvest produce that’s used in cooking classes or in our daily meals!”

Not only do residents love seeing what grows and sampling delicacies right from the vine, but the Victory Garden also gives residents with dementia a sense of joy. Creating a sensory garden – an environment that is specifically designed to stimulate all five senses – can help reduce troubling behaviors, reduce depression and stress and provide individuals with dementia a sense of well-being. 

The Sensory Benefits of Gardening

What does the smell of fresh cut grass bring to mind? What memories are evoked when you smell lilacs or roses? Walking through a garden can be an explosion of memories for many, since scent is the strongest memory-trigger of our senses. According to scientists, the part of our brain responsible for basic memory evolved from the tissue that makes up our olfactory cortex. 

Because scent and memory is so closely linked, a sensory garden can be used as a tool to help evoke memories and build happy moments for seniors with dementia. Much like art and music therapies are used to help residents communicate, garden therapy can be a calming yet interesting activity that keeps every sense piqued. Here are just a few of the many benefits of sensory gardens for individuals with dementia:

Being outdoors. Being in the fresh air provides Vitamin D, exercise and a sense of calming peace.

Decreased unwanted behaviors. Residents who have the benefit of a sensory garden often experience decreased confusion, anxiety and agitation, resulting in a more comfortable state of well-being. 

Better sleep. Natural sunlight helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, and physical activity helps tire residents out so they’re ready for bed. 

Increased sense of self-worth. Activities in sensory gardens can easily be adapted so that seniors with dementia can use their remaining abilities to the fullest. Being able to complete tasks and see the benefits of their efforts grows self-confidence and provides purpose. 

Engaged senses through touch, sound, smell, sight and even taste.


Planning a Sensory Garden

The best sensory gardens feature elements that stimulate all five senses. 

Sight. There is so much opportunity for color and texture when gardening. Brightly colored flowers are just one aspect. Even the walkways, planters and natural visitors to the garden (such as birds and butterflies) add visual interest that can be inspiring and engaging. It’s important to create a balance between bright, energizing colors and calm, soft colors in order to avoid overstimulation. 

Sound. Gardens are filled with interesting and calming sounds. The wind rustling through the leaves, grasses or plants. The soft tinkling of a wind chime, or a burble from a water feature. Balance both the natural and man-made elements when it comes to sound – you want it to be engaging but not overstimulating. 

Scent. Gardens are filled with scents, from the smell of the soil to the plants and the air itself. Sensory gardens contain all types and varieties of plants that release scent in different ways, such as flowers (which release smell naturally), or vegetables (which change smells as they grow) and plants like geraniums that only release scent when crushed by hand. 

Taste. Yes – taste plays an important role in gardening! Obviously, vegetable and herb gardens are a perfect place to explore taste. However, there are many edible flower varieties that can be added to a garden, like pansies, nasturtiums and hibiscus. 

Touch. Different plants have different feels, and can be a soothing sensory experience for individuals with Alzheimer’s. Feel the difference between the soft, fuzzy leaves of a sage plant, or the smooth foliage of a peace lily. 

Tips for Garden Safety

While gardening is generally a low-risk activity, certain precautions need to be taken in order to create a safe, structured environment for seniors with dementia. If you’re considering planning a sensory garden for your loved one, here are a few suggestions:

● Pre-plan activities that you can do together that work with your loved one’s abilities. This could be pulling weeds, planting in containers or simply watering the plants. Try and find tasks and activities that don’t require a lot of direction to give your loved one some autonomy. 

● Purchase garden tools with rounded edges like trowels and scoops. Avoid rakes or anything with sharp, pointed edges. 

● Protect your loved one’s skin with sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.

● Keep water handy and be sure your senior loved one stays hydrated.

● Use only non-toxic plants in your garden to avoid any accidental poisoning

● Be sure your loved one has places where he or she can sit and rest

● Add bird feeders and bird baths –  bird watching has been shown to calm anxiety and aggression in individuals with dementia

The power of gardening can touch us all and create meaningful memories that will last a lifetime. We invite you to get an inside look at the Victory Garden at our Assisted Living community and discover how our lifestyle can enhance the life of your senior loved one. For more information or to schedule your tour, call us at 616-259-5526.

Live Well. Age Well. Be Well.

At Azpira Place® of Breton, located in Kentwood, MI, we’re redefining how seniors Live Well. Age Well. Be Well. Our lifestyle is far from “typical.” Our vibrant and engaging Assisted Living and uplifting A Knew Day® Memory Support inspires our residents to live passionately with purpose, every single day

Each day, our residents find the person-centered support and care they need, all while enjoying an inspiring and engaging lifestyle. The need for care or support doesn’t stop our residents from wanting to be active, involved or engaged, and it especially doesn’t keep them from obtaining the lifestyle they desire and deserve. With a variety of spacious private apartment floor plans, constant access to good company, exciting services and amenities, delicious dining experiences and life-enriching programming, residents never have to worry about having nothing to do. There’s always something waiting for them just outside their door! And best yet, if they desire space and privacy, there’s also plenty of room for that, too! Spend time outdoors in the sunshine, read a favorite book in the library, take your pet for a walk or simply relax in your private apartment, the possibilities are endless!

At Azpira Place of Breton, residents never have to worry about maintenance, housekeeping or the tasks of homeownership. We created our community so our residents could have the peace of mind of care while focusing on what really matters, what makes them who they are. With engaging VIVA!SM programming by Pathway to Living®, residents can spend their newfound time learning something new, enjoying an old pastime, taking up a new hobby, starting their own classes and clubs or focusing on their health with our wellness programming. Experience the lifestyle you deserve and discover the key to what helps Azpira Place of Breton residents Live Well. Age Well. Be Well. 

To learn more or schedule a personal visit, call us at 616-259-5526.